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Navigating Disputes in Probate Court

Posted by Nina Whitehurst | Mar 31, 2024 | 0 Comments

When someone passes away, the probate process ensures that the deceased's estate fulfills its debts and that the heirs receive their assets. The deceased's will dictates how to settle and distribute their assets and debts. (If no will exists, state intestacy laws apply.) When a legal dispute arises during the process of probate, probate litigation may ensue.

Most matters the probate courts handle, like admitting wills and assigning executors, are standard operating procedures and go uncontested. However, legal contests arising from a person's death or mental capacity may lead to probate litigation over powers of attorney, will and trust contests, guardianships, and living wills.

Common Legal Concerns in Probate Court

Some common problems leading to probate litigations include the following:

Will Contests

Questions sometimes surface about the validity of a will. Interested parties may dispute the deceased person's will or allege undue influence or fraud. Or they might argue that the person who made the will (testator) lacked the mental capacity to create a valid will.

Estate Administration Disputes

Likewise, disagreements may arise among heirs, executors, or administrators regarding the management and distribution of estate assets. These arguments can include allegations of mismanagement or conflicts over the interpretation of the will or trust provisions.

Claims Against the Estate

Creditors or individuals may believe they have a rightful claim to the deceased person's assets. They then may seek to file claims against the estate. Claims can include outstanding debts, unresolved contracts, or disputed property ownership.

Guardianship Disputes

In disputes over appointing a guardian for a minor or a disabled adult, probate litigation can also result. Concerns about the actions of an appointed guardian or conservator may lead to probate litigation, too.

Breach of Trust

By law, executors, administrators, and trustees must act in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries. Allegations of misconduct, self-dealing, or failure to fulfill these obligations may lead to litigation.

Document Interpretation

Disputes may arise over the interpretation of a will, trust, or other estate planning documents. These conflicts can involve disagreements about:

  • the intended meaning of certain provisions,

  • the scope of powers granted to trustees or executors, or

  • the distribution of assets among beneficiaries.

Family Disputes

Family dynamics can often lead to probate litigation, especially with strained relationships, blended families, or unequal distributions of assets. Sibling rivalry, disputes with former spouses, or decisions to cut off certain heirs can result in legal challenges.

Individuals marrying multiple times without a prenuptial agreement are also likely to incite probate litigation upon their death. Life insurance trusts can be a valuable way to separate the interests of the decedent's spouses and children.

Probate, Estate, and Trust Litigation Attorneys

If you anticipate probate litigation, your estate administration attorney can provide you with guidance. They will be able to explain your rights and options to prevent future problems. If you are involved in a dispute, a probate litigation attorney can help you navigate the legal system and resolve it. Some attorneys specialize specifically in conflicts with trust administration and litigation.

Consider your legal situation as well as an attorney's experience, reputation, and track record when handling similar matters. Feeling comfortable working with them is essential.

Early Steps in Probate Litigation

In probate litigation, your attorney plays a key role in representing your interests while navigating the legal process. All things begin with an initial lawyer consultation to discuss your case's details, goals, and concerns.

Your attorney will evaluate the strength of your claims or defenses. They also can explain the legal process, potential outcomes, and available strategies to achieve your objectives. Most states have strict statutes of limitations, so the earlier you contact a probate litigation lawyer, the better.

Your attorney can thoroughly research your case's relevant laws, precedents, and regulations. They will analyze the facts and circumstances to develop a legal strategy tailored to your situation. They'll also review all relevant documents, including wills, financial records, trusts, and other evidence relating to the dispute. Your attorney will then prepare and draft such legal documents as complaints, petitions, answers, motions, and discovery requests.

Probate Court Processes

Probate litigation hearings and trials usually take place in the county probate court where the decedent died. Your attorney should be familiar with the county probate court where the case is being tried.

Your attorney will engage in the discovery process by gathering evidence, documents, and depositions from other parties. They will also respond to discovery requests from the opposing party. Each side will advocate for their client's interests and work to reach a favorable settlement if possible. They will also advise them on the merits of accepting or rejecting settlement offers.

Trial preparation and representation will occur if the settlement phase fails. In this situation, your lawyer would prepare you for trial, make legal arguments, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and present your case to the court. Throughout the process, they are responsible for helping you make informed decisions regarding the direction of your case.

Work With Your Attorney

Probate court can elicit high emotions and tense interactions. You may, for instance, see significant disruption to family relationships. These sorts of disputes could open the estate to creditor lawsuits as well.

Estate administration and probate litigation attorneys assist in preventing these kinds of estate-related contests. With a qualified professional, you can execute a proper estate plan. This can reduce the likelihood of probate litigation happening in the first place.

About the Author

Nina Whitehurst

Attorney at Law Nina has been practicing law for over 30 years in the areas of estate planning, real estate and business law She is currently licensed in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Tennessee. Her Martindale-Hubbell attorney rating is the highest achievable: 5 stars in peer...


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