After a loved one passes away, the personal representative (fiduciary) on behalf of the estate or trust is responsible for managing the estate and distributing the assets. When the decedent has a valid New York will or trust in place, the decedent’s wishes are carried out, and there is less chance that a dispute or claim will result. However, since there is no way of predicting how heirs or beneficiaries are going to react after the death of a loved, or whether an unexpected event is going to occur, there is always the possibility that a conflict or dispute may erupt. Disputes frequently occur between beneficiaries or heirs regarding a will or trust contest, spousal rights to inherit, the performance of a fiduciary, creditor’s claims or other claims.
When the dispute or conflict cannot be resolved among the interested parties, the matter may result in an estate litigation lawsuit. Estate litigation causes delays for the beneficiaries and other interested parties and the estate and interested parties incur extra costs to fight the litigation. Because estate litigation matters are so complex, the parties generally hire their own New York estate litigation attorney to represent them in Court and to help resolve the matter quicker.
Estate Litigation Often Happens in Court Rooms
The following are the most common types of estate litigation matters:
Will contest. Challenge or contest regarding the validity of a will. Grounds may be mental incompetence of the decedent at the time the decedent made the will, undue influence, duress, the will was not signed properly, forgery or a provision of the will was omitted or vague.
Trust contest. Challenge that a provision in the trust was vague
Breach of fiduciary duty. Challenging the actions of the fiduciary (executor, administrator or trustee such as financial mismanagement of estate assets, financial losses to the estate or beneficiaries, commitment of an illegal act such as embezzlement of estate funds or the fiduciary received financial gain from estate assets.
Fiduciary Removal. Requests that a fiduciary be removed for cause and pay restitution to the estate or beneficiaries.
Challenge of accountings. Requests that the fiduciary produce financial information regarding estate assets, investments, bank statements, a challenge or defense of tax issues, investment policies, or accounting procedures in the management of an estate or trust.
Surviving spousal litigation. Decedent intentionally omitted spouse from will, rights of the surviving spouse to inherit under New York law, validity of prenuptial and postnuptial agreements.
Kinship proceedings. Extended family members such as aunts, uncles or distant cousins trying to establish their relationship to decedent when no other close family members survive decedent to claim decedent’s assets.
Claims against the estate. Claims brought by business partners of the decedent regarding interests in a business asset owned with the decedent (occurs mostly during intestate proceedings, when decent died without a will) or claim by creditor whose claim has been denied by the fiduciary, seeking payment of the claim.
Wrongful death claims. Litigation matters brought by family members against persons who caused the negligent death of the decedent. Medical malpractice claims on behalf of heirs and beneficiaries. All wrongful death monetary awards are considered assets of the estate and distributed to the beneficiaries of the decedent.
Guardianship proceedings. When a parent passes away without leaving a will or becomes incapacitated and cannot care for a child, a guardianship must be established appointing a relative or other person to take care of the child and make medical, education and other decisions regarding the welfare of the child. Or when a person becomes incapacitated either physically or mentally and needs someone to take care of them and look out for their assets.
Filing Your Litigation Claim
Establishing the claim. The party filing the lawsuit is referred to as the plaintiff. The plaintiff must have sufficient grounds to file an estate lawsuit. So for instance, you cannot contest your dad’s will simply because you disagree with his decision to leave the bulk of his estate to his favorite charity. However, if you can prove that at the time your dad made his will, he was mentally incompetent through his medical records and/or testimony by his physician, then you may have sufficient grounds to contest the will and claim your rightful inheritance.
Initiating the Lawsuit and Evidence. The attorney for the plaintiff will draft the motion and file the litigation claim with the New York Surrogate’s Court. The attorney representing the plaintiff will determine what type of evidence the plaintiff will need to present at the hearing in order to argue and win the case. Evidence such as medical records, the will or trust, certified birth, marriage or death certificates may need to be submitted to the Court to support a will contest matter or to establish that someone is an heir of the decedent. It may be necessary to hire handwriting and other experts. Other witnesses such as the decedent’s caretaker, physician, friends, neighbors, witnesses to the decedent’s will or trust may also be required to testify at the hearing.
In a guardianship proceeding when a parent has passed away without a will and has not made any arrangements for the care of a minor or disabled child, testimony by relatives and friends may need to be given or birth certificates provided to establish a lineage between the decedent and a relative seeking to become the child’s guardian in order for the Court to establish who would be the most suitable person or persons to be appointed as a guardian. If the child is 14 or older, the Court will also take into consideration the child’s wishes as to who the child wants to live with. It is also not unusual for one person to be appointed as the guardian of the person and a different person to be appointed as the guardian of the property.
Deciding the Matter. The Court has the jurisdiction to decide the matter. After all the testimony and evidence has been presented, the Court will make a ruling on the matter. Claims against a fiduciary for breach of fiduciary duty can result in the removal of the fiduciary, a criminal conviction, and the Court can order the fiduciary to personally reimburse the estate or the beneficiaries for any monetary losses the fiduciary caused them.
Hiring an NYC Estate Litigation Lawyer
Estate litigation is emotional for all parties. Hostilities and personal animosities are created bringing out the worst in people. All too often you hear about the decedent’s second wife and the decedent’s children fighting over the decedent’s assets when the decedent fails to leave a will and dies intestate. Or families fighting over who gets mom’s diamond wedding ring or her pearl necklace, or dad’s art collection or his antique car.
Hiring the best New York estate law firm to represent your interests makes the situation less stressful and can be instrumental in getting the disputes resolved quicker and more efficiently so that the probate or trust administration can resume and the beneficiaries can receive their rightful inheritances.
If you are involved in an estate litigation matter or you are a fiduciary who needs legal assistance to defend against a contested accounting or other estate litigation claim, it is important that you consult with a probate litigation attorney to make sure your interests are properly represented. St. Pre Law Firm represents clients regarding all estate litigation matters as well as routine estate administration and estate tax matters.