When people create a will or other legal document that pertains to their estate, they assume that it will be legally sound. Unfortunately, in many cases, when the estate is opened and a legal document such as a last will and testament (will) or an irrevocable living trust (trust) is presented, either one of these may be disputed by a family member or loved one. If an individual disagrees with one of these legal documents, he or she may dispute it in a court of law.
Common Issues that Cause Disputes
The controversies that most often arise can occur not always because of poor planning, but it may be that the estate planning document was not updated when there was a major life change in the life of the decedent, or that there is mistrust over who was put in charge, among other reasons. The following scenarios are some of the most common types of disputes that occur with estate planning documents and can ultimately lead to litigation.
Your estate planning documents should always be updated when you experience a major life change. One example of a big life change would be a second marriage. If you do not update your estate planning documents following a second marriage, an estate plan dispute may arise after your death. This is especially true if children are involved in the estate. If your child’s future is not financially provided for in the estate plan, this can lead to significant conflict. Even if you took care to update your last will and testament, parties connected with the last will and testament may not agree with your estate planning decisions. Disagreement, frustration, and hurt feelings can often translate into litigation. The best way to avoid estate issues that arise from a will or trust is to visit with your spouse, your ex-spouse, your children, and your spouse’s children, and explain your wishes. Doing this may avoid trouble and unnecessary litigation after your death.
Mistrust of the Executor
It is not uncommon for people to mistrust the executor of the estate. The executor is the person who manages the estate and carries out the wishes of the decedent. An executor plays an important role in the handling of assets. Oftentimes, individuals who are beneficiaries of the will find fault with the actions of the executor and mistrust his or her judgment. These feelings can lead to disputes amongst the heirs, and lead further into litigation. There are scenarios where an executor does make careless decisions or carries out fraudulent behavior. It is not uncommon for executors to make honest mistakes, but some executors are outright dishonest and for this reason, a number of cases end up in estate litigation.
Coercion or Undue Influence
If a will awards the decedent’s assets to an unexpected person, some beneficiaries sense that their deceased loved one was coerced or unduly influenced into leaving their assets to this individual. Elderly individuals are often manipulated by dishonest people into altering their estate plans, and some individuals with memory loss may not make wise decisions. If there is any thought of coercion or undue influence that may have taken place, family members who suspect wrongdoing may pursue litigation.
Dealing with Estate Disputes
If there are issues regarding the estate that seem unresolvable, what can be done? The answer depends on the nature of the disagreement, and on the individuals involved. Here are some ways that people deal with an estate planning dispute:
Replace the Executor
If a dispute revolves around problems with the executor, it is possible and may be necessary to remove the executor and have him or her replaced. An objective third party individual may be the best choice in these circumstances.
Mediation can help solve issues in a more amicable way. Mediation may mean formal discussions with a third-party mediator, or in some situations, it may be sufficient and less expensive to hold an informal meeting with all willing parties involved. An informal meeting tends to be most effective when the disagreement is a relatively minor one.
To begin litigation, an individual must be a potential inheritor of the deceased person and have sufficient grounds to bring forth a claim. Estate litigation may have results which include:
Damages award: An individual may obtain compensation if he or she can prove they have sustained a financial loss because of the mismanagement of the estate.
Redistribution of property: If any property was wrongly distributed, a court may rule that the property should be redistributed according to the original arrangement in the estate plan.
Contact an Experienced Estate Attorney
If you have concerns about the estate planning documents of your loved one, visit with an experienced estate attorney as soon as possible. Additionally, if you want to ensure that your estate planning documents never come into question, consider visiting with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure your wishes are followed after your death.