The death of a loved one brings a number of legal and financial challenges, some that are expected and others that can take you by surprise.
Estate disputes often arise when surviving family members have different ideas about the intentions of the decedent. In a perfect world, the probate and estate administration process will run smoothly with no conflict, but it is always wise to watch for warning signs that can signal potential costly litigation.
A few factors that often lead to estate disputes include:
- A second marriage: When a person gets married for the second time, he or she often updates estate plans to make sure that the first spouse and children from the first marriage are taken care of in the event of his or her death. Predictably, this can result in bad feelings on the part of the spouse and children from the second marriage. If the estate plans are not updated, the family from the first marriage may feel left out. In any case, having two families competing for a single estate is fertile ground for estate litigation.
- Signs of undue influence: Wills and other estate planning documents are often called into question when there are suspicions that an individual exercised undue influence over the decedent. People accused of undue influence are often caregivers, friends and family members who had a close relationship with the decedent in his or her waning years. If there were significant changes to an estate plan, and these changes stand to benefit a confidant or caregiver to an unusual degree, it may be a sign that undue influence was at play. Of course, the person accused of undue influence may have been acting in good faith and worthy of an increased portion of the estate. These matters are often the subject of complex estate litigation.
- Distrust in the executor: Disagreements between beneficiaries and estate executors are common, and often result in estate disputes. Common accusations against executors include breach of fiduciary duty, self dealing, fraud and mismanagement of estate assets. Whether you are an executor or have concerns about the conduct of an executor or other fiduciary, it is important to talk to an attorney who can help you understand your rights and options.
Estate disputes can prove very costly and disruptive if not properly handled. It is important to consult with an experienced estate litigation attorney at the earliest sign of conflict. With skilled legal guidance, it is often possible to resolve such disputes in a favorable, cost-effective manner that does not inflect unnecessary damage to the family.