A parent dies, but the child is unaware of the death
A child (of whatever age) can make a claim1 against the estate of their parent under the Family Protection Act 1955 (FPA) if their parent dies and makes insufficient provision for them in their will. What happens, however, when a parent dies and their children aren’t aware of the fact?
This situation can be a tricky position for the executor of a will. Executors are obliged to carry out the terms of the will, and they have duties toward the beneficiaries. However they also have duties toward prospective claimants against a will. When an executor is aware that a person intends to make a claim against an estate, they owe a duty of even-handedness toward that person; this includes ensuring that they do not actively and dishonestly conceal relevant material about the estate from potential claimants who seek information about the estate.2
This means that if a child has, for example, engaged a lawyer to act for them and indicated that they intend to make a claim against an estate, the executor must provide information to them and consider their position when administering the estate. The executor cannot sneakily pay out all of the estate assets without telling the child or their lawyer.
There is no general duty, however, on an executor to search for all possible claimants against an estate, nor to inform those people of the fact of death or of their right to make a claim against an estate.
In a 2018 case concerning a relatively small estate, the High Court commented that when assessing an executor’s obligations, ‘regard must be had to the cost and difficulty’ of locating possible claimants or interested parties.3
This means that if a child is estranged from their parent and may not be aware that their parent has died, an executor does not have to find them and tell them — particularly if the estate is small and a significant cost would be incurred.
By the time the child finds out about their parent’s death, the estate might have been distributed and the child may no longer be able to make a claim.
The extent of an executor’s obligations toward those of whose claims an executor should be aware has not yet been decided by the New Zealand courts. This might be the case where there is a very large estate and the executor knows a child is impoverished and receives nothing under the will. The child might have contacted the executor at some point, but has not indicated they intend to make a claim against the estate. It is not clear, legally speaking, whether the executor has obligations to that child before distributing the estate and, if so, what those obligations are.
The Law Commission’s report
In December 2021, the New Zealand Law Commission released its final report on the law of succession, along with its recommendations for the government, including a new Succession Act. The report includes recommendations regarding an executor’s duty toward prospective claimants against an estate.
One of the two options that the Law Commission recommends in respect of claims by children is that only children under 25 years old or with a disability be able to make a claim for further provision from an estate. This would limit the ability of adult children to bring claims, which they can currently do under the FPA.
The Commission also recommends that the law should require an executor to notify prospective claimants of relevant information related to their rights. If the first recommendation is accepted, this would mean an executor only needs to notify children under 25 years old or with a disability that the death has occurred and of their rights.
Where a prospective claimant is not known or cannot be found, the Commission proposes that an executor’s duty will be satisfied where they take reasonable steps to search for and give notice to that person. This means that if an executor is unaware of a child, and reasonable searches for information do not disclose the child’s existence, the executor won’t be liable for failing to provide notice or information to that child.
Alternatively, and if the government decides to allow all children to continue to make claims against an estate, the Law Commission does not recommend that executors be required to notify children of the death and/or of their rights. This would continue the current situation.
The Law Commission’s recommendations may dramatically change the law about who can claim against their parent’s estate. If the government takes up those recommendations, the Law Commission also proposes that an executor’s duties should change, and that an executor be required to notify children under 25 or disabled children that their parent has died and what their rights are. This could lead to an increase in estate litigation, though in a smaller group of eligible claimants than is currently the case.
1 Minor children, however, will need someone to bring the application on their behalf.
2 Sadler v Public Trust  NZCA 364, (2009) 28 FRNZ 474 at  and ; as referred to in Re Application by Lane (in their capacity as trustees and executors of the estate of the late Carson)  NZHC 3144
3 Rattray v Palestine Children’s Relief Fund  NZHC 466.