Probate is the legal process typically required after an individual’s death to settle and distribute the decedent’s estate. The probate process can be costly and complicated even without disputes; however, when a dispute turns into litigation, it can wreak havoc with the administration of the estate. The Riverside probate litigation lawyers at Dennis M. Sandoval, A Professional Law Corporation explain what to expect if you find yourself involved in probate litigation.
Most people leave behind an estate when they die. That estate consists of all assets, both tangible and intangible, owned by the decedent at the time of death. Probate is the legal process by which those assets are identified, located, valued, and eventually distributed to the intended beneficiaries and/or legal heirs of the estate. Creditors of the estate are also notified and provided an opportunity to file claims during the probate process. If the decedent left behind a valid Last Will and Testament, the individual named as the Executor in that Will is responsible for overseeing the probate process and the terms of the Will are used to determine how the estate assets are distributed. If the decedent died intestate (without a Will), someone typically volunteers to be the Personal Representative and oversee the probate of the estate and the California intestate succession laws dictate how estate assets are distributed. If the decedent left behind a trust, assets held in the trust are not required to go through the probate process. Instead, the Trustee of the trust can distribute those assets to the named beneficiaries at any time according to the terms of the trust within a reasonable time after the Trustor’s death.
Causes of Probate Litigation
As you may well imagine, disputes can occur during the probate of an estate. In fact, the frequency with which probate litigation occurs has been increasing in recent years. Some of the more common causes of probate litigation include:
• Contesting a Will –to contest a Will you must allege, and eventually prove to be successful, that the Will is legally invalid for one of several allowable grounds in the State of California. Those grounds include:
• Lack of testamentary intent or capacity – alleging that the decedent did not have the required mental state when the Will was made.
• Undue influence – claiming that there was an improper influence at the time the Will was drafted and that the influence benefited the person or persons doing the influencing. The person drafting the Will need not be incapacitated in order to be subject to undue influence.
• Fraud –claiming that the Will was made as a result of fraud on the decedent or that fraud was used to create the Will.
• Duress – alleging that the decedent was unlawfully confined or detained when making the will.
• Mistake –claiming a mistake when the Will was made caused it to be invalid, or that a mistake is preventing you from receiving something from the estate to which you are legally entitled.
• Revocation –claiming that the Will was voided, or canceled out by a later Will or similar document.
When a Will contest is initiated, the entire probate process effectively grinds to a halt to focus on the challenge to the Will. Until that issue is decided one way or the other probate cannot move forward because the outcome of the Will contest determines who will receive the probate estate — either under the terms of the Will or using the California intestate succession laws.
• Contesting a Trust – a trust can be contested in much the same way, and for most of the same reason as a Will, including:
• Improper formation of the trust – failure to acquire the proper signatures, witnesses, or other legal requirements at the time the trust was drawn up).
• Lack of capacity — alleges that the Trustor (creator) lacked the requisite mental capacity required by law at the time that the document was created.
• Illegal, unconscionable, or impossible terms – for example, the terms governing the distribution of assets is in violation of existing laws.
• Vague terms — it is unclear or uncertain what the Trustor’s intent was from the language in the document.
• Undue influence – alleges that the Trustor was influenced by a third party when creating the trust agreement and that influence benefited the person who was exercising the influence. Again, it is not necessary to prove incapacity in order to prove undue influence.
Your Role in Probate Litigation
If you are an Executor, Administrator, Personal Representative, or Trustee you have a fiduciary duty to defend the Will, trust, and/or estate throughout any litigation that may arise. To ensure that you do not make a costly mistake, retaining the services of an experienced probate litigation attorney is highly recommended. If you are a beneficiary or heir, you have a right to challenge the Will, the trust agreement, and/or the manner in which an Executor, Administrator, Personal Representative, or Trustee is fulfilling his/her duties and responsibilities. To increase your chances of succeeding, you will also need the assistance of an experienced attorney.
Contact a California Probate Litigation Attorney
If you have additional questions or concerns about probate litigation, contact the experienced California probate litigation attorneys at Dennis M. Sandoval, A Professional Law Corporation by calling (951) 888-1460 to schedule an appointment.