Many legal minds making NZ LAW work

We are an association of independent legal practices, proactively sharing ideas and expertise for the benefit of our clients.

Trustees’ personal liability for litigation costs

Published: 26th February 2018

Author: Kimberly Lawrence, Greg Kelly Law Ltd

Published in: Trust e.Speaking | Issue 26

It can be an unpleasant surprise

Trustees and executors are not always entitled to reimbursement for their litigation costs.

While most trustees and executors will assume that costs incurred in the course of their trustee or executorship will be paid from the estate or trust, the recent decision in Courteney v Pratley[2] is an illustration of the perils that trustees or executors can face when they go to court.

Trustees and executors are in charge of the property of others. They are not expected to pay for their own expenses in doing so and, as such, are usually entitled to reimbursement of the costs they incur.

When trustees and executors go to court, however, they are only entitled to be reimbursed for their litigation expenses where those were ‘properly incurred’ in the course of their trustee or executorship. These factors will be relevant to whether the cost was properly incurred:

  • Whether the cost arose from actions taken within the scope of the trustee or executorship
  • Whether the cost was incurred because the trustee or executor’s obligations required them to incur the costs, and
  • Whether the expense incurred was reasonable.[3]

Where trustees are litigating against a third party to protect trust property, they will generally expect to be reimbursed because they are maximising, or trying to maximise, the property available to the beneficiaries.[4]

The need to be careful

Last year’s decision in Courteney v Pratley, however, suggests that executors and trustees may need to be more careful. In this case, Mr Pratley had been appointed by the High Court as executor shortly before a civil claim against the estate was to be heard in the District Court. Mr Pratley sought independent advice as to the merits of defending the claim and instructed lawyers to defend the claim on behalf of the estate. The estate was worth about $500,000 and the claim against the estate was for less than 10% of this. The estate lost the District Court case and was ordered to pay costs.

At a later stage the eventual beneficiary of the estate challenged Mr Pratley’s right to reimbursement of the litigation costs of the lawyers who had been instructed to defend the District Court case. The beneficiary said that the estate should not have defended the litigation and that the expense had not been properly incurred because it was not reasonable in all of the circumstances.

Justice Cull agreed with the plaintiff, Mr Courteney, and found that Mr Pratley was not entitled to reimbursement for the lawyers’ expenses incurred defending the District Court proceeding against the estate. She acknowledged that Mr Pratley had acted in good faith, and on legal advice, and that he believed he was protecting the estate assets.

However, Justice Cull found that executors and trustees should be cautious before proceeding with expensive litigation. She said that Mr Pratley ought to have applied to the High Court for directions as to whether he was to defend the District Court litigation or not. Even though the situation was urgent, and Mr Pratley had not been able to have the District Court case put off, Justice Cull still found that he should have urgently applied to the High Court for authorisation before instructing lawyers to defend the case.

Hostile litigation

When executors and trustees engage in litigation against beneficiaries (known as ‘hostile litigation’) they are often aware of the possibility that they will not be reimbursed for their costs in doing so. Most trustees and executors will assume, however, that if they are incurring legal costs in the course of defending trust or estate assets they will be entitled to reimbursement from the trust or estate.

Instead, the Courteney decision suggests that trustees and executors must carefully consider the size of the trust or estate, the likely costs that are expected to be incurred in the course of any litigation and, if they are unsure whether the steps they plan to take are reasonable or not, they should apply to the High Court for directions as to how to proceed.

It would be wise for executors and trustees to consider doing this at an early stage if litigation is contemplated or has been started against them, in order to avoid finding themselves personally liable for the litigation costs.


[2]    Courteney v Pratley [2017] NZHC 3285.

[3]    Re O’Donoghue [1998] 1 NZLR 116.

[4]    Re Buckton [1907] 2 Ch 406.

 

Related Articles

  • Auckland
  • Bay of Plenty
  • Canterbury
  • Coromandel
  • Gisborne
  • Hawke's Bay
  • Kapiti Coast
  • Manawatu - Wanganui
  • Marlborough
  • Nelson
  • Northland
  • Otago
  • Southland
  • Taranaki
  • Waikato
  • Wairarapa
  • Wellington
  • West Coast

Lowndes Jordan

Lowndes Jordan is a top niche law firm committed to service excellence, achieved through our dedication to understanding our clients' individual needs and requirements, developing tailored solutions and following through to ensure results are delivered.

Our commitment to quality is supported by being the first ISO 9001 certified law firm in New Zealand.

Lowndes Jordan has access to some of the nation's foremost legal and business advisory experts, allowing us to provide a full range of inputs to assist you in meeting your objectives.

We serve a wide range of clients including listed companies, multinationals, privately held companies, entrepreneurs and business individuals.

All clients have direct access to specialist partners and client service teams comprised of senior practitioners.

Region: Auckland

Phone: 09 309 2500

Jackson Reeves Lawyers

Jackson Reeves is a long established law firm that has been providing quality legal services in Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty region for over 60 years. We have proven expertise in business and personal law and deliver high calibre legal advice and solutions that work for you.

Choosing a law firm is not always an easy decision but you can take comfort in the knowledge that Jackson Reeves take a client focussed approach, providing specialist and practical legal services. Old fashioned virtues, like integrity, transparency and trust are of importance to us and we value quality, relationships and diversity.

Region: Bay of Plenty

Phone: 07 578 2129

Malley & Co

Our experienced, solutions-focused team will work hard to get you the best possible outcome, whatever your legal needs.

Region: Canterbury

Phone: 03 379 0712

Purnell Lawyers

There is nothing as inevitable as change. Since opening for business early last century, we at Purnell Lawyers have seen many changes both in name and in the people who have made up the members of our team. We have been privileged to have served the public throughout all of these times. 

We are confident that we will continue to bring top quality legal services to our clients well into the future.

Region: Coromandel

Phone: 07 868 8680

Woodward Chrisp

At Woodward Chrisp we strive to meet the needs of our clients by providing a wide range of high quality legal services within a supportive and collaborative environment.

Woodward Chrisp is the amalgamation of two long established Gisborne legal firms: Woodward Iles & Co and Chrisp and Chrisp. Today’s partners are Ross Revington, Adam Simperingham and Jeff Allen.

Region: Gisborne

Phone: 06 869 0900

Gifford Devine

For all life’s matters, the team at Gifford Devine have your back. Since 1896, our lawyers have been providing straight-talking, practical advice and advocacy to people, families and businesses in Hawke’s Bay.

As your legal champions, we’ll serve you as a trusted adviser, listen to your needs, offer plain English advice, and find a solution to get you the best possible outcome.

We have the expertise to identify potential legal issues, to help you make important decisions, and to realise your goals. We’re your legal champions for all reasons and at all stages of life.

Region: Hawke's Bay

Phone: 06 873 0420

Breaden McCardle Lawyers

Breaden McCardle Lawyers is the largest full service legal practice in the Kapiti Region.

We are here to help you and pride ourselves on providing practical, solutions based advice to clients in an approachable and straightforward manner.

Region: Kapiti Coast

Phone: 04 296 1105

CS Law

Looking after you, your family, and the small print.

Region: Manawatu - Wanganui

Phone: 06 368 9239

Wain & Naysmith

Based in Blenheim, Wain & Naysmith Lawyers is a full service law firm, and a powerhouse for property, family and business law.

We pride ourselves in providing clear and cost effective legal solutions and practical advice for you, your family and your business.

Region: Marlborough

Phone: 03 520 6103

Knapps Lawyers

As a firm, we promise to look after you and treat you in a manner that we would expect to be treated by a professional services provider; we promise to use every available legal remedy available to us to resolve your issue and to do what you ask us to do in a timely manner.

We will hold in strict confidence all information that we acquire through our work for you and which concerns your business or personal information.  The only exceptions are where you authorise us to disclose such information or where we must do so by law.

Region: Nelson

Phone: 03 544 7888

Thomson Wilson

Thomson Wilson is a full service law firm based in Whangarei. We’ve been trusted lawyers for the Northland community and beyond for 75 years.

We act for individuals and families, businesses, public sector and other organisations. Whether you need no-fuss advice on a simple matter, or a team of legal experts. 

Our staff provide advice in most areas of the law, including property law, business law, trusts and estates, separation and divorce, resource management, criminal law and more.

We also offer expertise in specialist areas such as Maori land, local government law, farming and forestry.

Region: Northland

Phone: 09 430 4380

Downie Stewart

At Downie Stewart Lawyers Dunedin we are focused solely on helping you achieve your goals. 

We have an incredibly talented team of Dunedin lawyers that will listen to you and provide you with sound legal advice, always striving for the simplest solution to any problem.

We are committed to this region and have worked with Dunedin and Otago families and businesses since 1867. 

Region: Otago

Phone: 03 477 2263

Sheddan Pritchard Law Ltd

Incorporating traditional values and a fresh perspective, Sheddan Pritchard Law is here to assist you with all your legal needs. 

Our friendly and team-driven approach underpins our firm’s values, recognising the importance of putting people first and allows us to connect and nurture professional relationships with new and existing clients within our local community of Gore, as well as throughout New Zealand and extending overseas.

Region: Southland

Phone: 03 209 0030

RMY Legal

Having been a cornerstone in the New Plymouth and Taranaki legal community since the 1930s we offer in-depth knowledge coupled with legal expertise and always put the needs of you and your business at the heart of what we do.

Not only do we offer a first class service to clients throughout Taranaki, we are passionate about what we do and our success stems from delivering advice in clear and understandable terms.

Region: Taranaki

Phone: 06 769 8080

Edmonds Judd

Edmonds Judd is based in Te Awamutu with an office in Otorohanga and continues to proudly serve the Waikato District as it has done for over 100 years. Known as a firm that generations of families have relied on and looked to for advice and assistance in both the good times and the bad, Edmonds Judd is the friendly and trusted name in legal services. Blending experience with cutting edge technology, which is rivalled only by the level of service and satisfaction which is provided to its loyal clients. Edmonds Judd’s friendly staff are more than happy to assist you in any enquiry you may have.

We will provide you with:

  • Smart and innovative legal thinking
  • Plain and simple language, instead of legal jargon
  • Decades of knowledge and broad perspectives from our widely experienced team
  • Access to the resources and skills of the NZ LAW group that Edmonds Judd is a member of.
  • You’ll have the knowledge of over 55 independent law firms behind you.

Region: Waikato

Gawith Burridge

Gawith Burridge traces its history back to 1875 when Charles Gawith first set up his practice. Since then the firm has undergone many changes, including a merger between Gawith & Co and Burridge & Co in 1998 to form our current practice.

Our firm draws on the breadth of expertise available from some of the region’s most senior legal practitioners, as well as the skills of those who have moved here from larger corporate environments.

As a result, we provide clients with a comprehensive range of legal services right here in the Wairarapa. We can provide you with legal assistance whether you are an individual or a company, with everything from setting up a Will to selling your farming business. 

Region: Wairarapa

Phone: 06 370 0000

Greg Kelly Law Ltd

Greg Kelly Law Limited is a boutique Wellington law firm specialising in trust and elder law. Our practice areas are wills, estates and trusts.

We act for private and institutional clients establishing and administering trusts, wills and estates. We also provide quality advice to legal and accounting firms in New Zealand and overseas. In particular, we can assist with legal opinions, obtaining and resealing probate, and estate and trust litigation.

Region: Wellington

Phone: 04 499 5193

Hannan & Seddon

The Law Firm of Hannan & Seddon dates back to September 1867.

The firm's offices were in Werita Street from 1867 until 1982 when the firm moved to Tarapuhi Street and then to its current spacious premises at 61 Guinness Street in 1998.

The name Hannan comes from Mr Michael Hannan whose son John Hannan (Jack) joined the firm in 1908. Jack Hannan remained in partnership until he passed away in 1974 at the age of 90!

The name Seddon comes from Mr T E Y Seddon (son of Premier Richard John Seddon from Kumara) who joined the firm in the 1920's. The other prominent Solicitor at Hannan & Seddon was Cyril McGinley who joined the firm in the late 1920’s and retired as a Consultant in 1997 aged 87.

Currently we have two Partners within our firm. Tony Sullivan who has been with us for 29 years and Colin Smith, 26 years. The firm also has two long serving Legal Executives Elaine Knowles and Beverley Walsh.  

Region: West Coast

Phone: 03 768 4169

All the information published on this website, or in any article herein is true and accurate to the best of the authors' knowledge. Information on this site should not be a substitute for legal advice. No liability is assumed by NZ LAW Limited, or individual NZ LAW member firms for losses suffered by any person or organisation relying directly or indirectly on information published on this site. Views expressed in any article are the views of the authors individually and do not necessarily reflect the view of NZ LAW or their member firms. Information appearing on this site may only be reproduced with prior approval from NZ LAW Limited Head Office, and credit being given to the source. © NZ LAW Limited