Couple Planning Their Will and Trust

Common Disputes That Lead To Estate Litigation

Estate litigation has the potential to drain the funds from the estate and pit family members against each other, which is why many people want to avoid it. Working with an estate planning lawyer may help you create a clear plan that communicates your wishes to family to hopefully avoid these problems. Below, we discuss some of the most common grounds for estate litigation. However, if you would like to discuss setting up your estate plan and how you may be able to avoid disruptive legal disputes, consider contacting a knowledgeable estate planning lawyer with the Roulet Law Firm, P.A. You can reach our offices in Minnesota at 763-420-5087 and Florida at 941-909-4644.

Validity of the Will

In most situations, the distribution of a decedent’s assets is accomplished partly, and in many cases primarily, through the probate of the individual’s Last Will and Testament. The execution of the will through probate depends on the document’s validation by the probate court, so instances of estate litigation frequently begin with challenging the validity of the will. Interested parties may lodge such challenges on several grounds.

Legal Formalities

Every state has specific rules that must be followed when creating a valid legal document, such as a last will and testament. If the proper legal formalities were not followed, those who may otherwise stand to inherit may challenge the will based on these deficiencies.

Requirements for a Valid Will in Florida

Under Chapter 732 of the 2022 Florida Statutes, a Last Will and Testament must be in writing. The testator, the person making the will, must sign at the end of the will or direct someone else to sign for them. Additionally, the testator must sign the will or an acknowledgment that the signature on the will is their own or was signed at their direction in front of two witnesses. The witnesses must sign the will in each other’s presence and in the presence of the testator.

Requirements for a Valid Will in Minnesota

The Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes shows that the law governing the validity of a will in this state is a bit different from that in Florida. Here, the Last Will and Testament must be in writing and signed by the testator. The testator can ask someone else to sign for them, but that person must be physically present. Alternatively, a court-appointed conservator may sign the will. There must still be two witnesses. However, they can sign “within a reasonable time” after they witness the signing.

What Happens if My Will Is Contested?

If any of these formalities were omitted, any interested party can contest the will. If the will is considered invalid, a previous will may be restored, or the state’s default rules of intestate succession may apply.

Mental Capacity

Another way to attack the validity of a will is to challenge whether the testator had the required mental capacity to sign the will. Both the Florida Probate Code and the Uniform Probate Code of Minnesota require that the testator be at least 18 years old and of “sound mind.” The definition of sound mind can vary, but it generally means the testator:

  • Understood the nature of the property in their estate
  • Understood they were providing instructions about what should happen to their property after death
  • Knew who their legal heirs were
  • Understood what they were doing when they made or changed the will

Mental capacity is typically presumed. Therefore, the person bringing forth estate litigation is responsible for proving the testator did not have testamentary capacity.

Undue Influence

If a beneficiary or heir believes that the will or trust does not reflect the testator’s wishes because they were influenced by someone else, they may challenge the document based on the legal principle of undue influence. Undue influence occurs when one person overcomes the will of another. In the context of probate law, usually this scenario involves a person in a position of trust using manipulation or coercion to get a vulnerable person to change some or all of their estate planning documents, for the purpose of benefiting the manipulator or a third party. Because the will no longer reflects the true desires of the testator, courts allow individuals who would otherwise be presumed heirs to challenge the will’s validity on this basis.

Distribution of Assets

Some disputes arise because the beneficiaries do not agree with how the property is being distributed. Heirs and beneficiaries cannot rewrite the terms of a will or trust. The executor, personal representative, or trustee must also follow the terms of the legal document, or of state law, if there is no will. However, beneficiaries may challenge distributions that go against the terms of the will or trust or when certain beneficiaries receive greater benefits than others when the document said they were to receive equal shares.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Heirs or beneficiaries may contest the will or trust if they believe the executor, personal representative, or trustee has breached their fiduciary duty. These individuals are placed in a position of trust. If they violate this trust by putting their own interests above those of the testator or beneficiaries, there may be challenges to their role and to the execution of the will as a result. They may be terminated from their position and held personally liable for the harm they cause.

There are many different fiduciaries involved in estates who may violate their duties, including:

  • Executors who must carry out the terms of a last will and testament
  • Personal representatives who must follow state law in administering the estate of a decedent
  • Trustees named in a trust to carry out its terms
  • Agents appointed in a healthcare power of attorney who must make medical decisions consistent with the principal’s wishes
  • Agents appointed in a power of attorney who are supposed to act in the principal’s best interests in managing their financial and legal affairs during their lifetime

Other Common Issues

There are many other issues that can potentially arise that can lead to estate litigation, including the following:

  • Interpretation of the will or trust: Disputes can arise if the language in the will or trust is not clear. This problem occurs more frequently when people write their own legal documents or use generic forms. In these situations, a court may have to try to determine the intent when the language is not clear.
  • Multiple wills: Some people may create different wills. If multiple wills exist and it is not clear whether a former will was revoked, it can be difficult to interpret how the estate should be administered.
  • Conflicts with the executor or trustee: Many people name their spouse or another family member as their executor or trustee. However, some families may have internal disputes or personality conflicts that can make it difficult to maintain a professional relationship. Beneficiaries may also disagree with how a trustee is managing their trust property. Disputes may arise in which a beneficiary asks the court to substitute this person for someone else.

An experienced estate planning lawyer with Roulet Law Firm, P.A. can help you create a comprehensive estate plan that may help to prevent these common disputes and any associated estate litigation.

Contact a Caring Estate Planning Lawyer To Create Your Personalized Estate Plan

Estate disputes are more common than many people realize. Careful estate planning can make such disputes less likely, and may make them easier to resolve if they occur. If you would like to work with an experienced estate planning and probate attorney to try to avoid estate litigation, consider contacting Roulet Law Firm, P.A. at our Florida office at 941-909-4644 or our Minnesota office at 763-420-5087.

And, if you would like to learn how to make it as easy and inexpensive as possible for your family to manage your affairs during incapacity and after passing, while ensuring your assets only go to whom you want and how you want, click here to register for our FREE online masterclass.

And, if you would like to learn how to protect your home and life savings from long-term care and nursing home costs, click here to download our FREE guide Save our Home: How to Protect Your Home and Life Savings From Long-Term Care and Nursing Home Costs.

Chuck Roulet
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Nationally Recognized Estate Planning Attorney, Author, and Speaker
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