When a will is administered, whatever assets the decedent had will be divided—including any property and physical valuables that he or she owned. Unfortunately, this process is rarely as simple and straightforward as one would hope.
There are plenty of opportunities for things to get complicated during the estate administration period. If a will is contested—meaning that one of the beneficiaries or legal heirs argues that the will is invalid or wrong in some way—or if a creditor claims that the decedent owed him money that was not previously considered by the administrator, it can throw a wrench into the whole process. This process of delaying the administration is known as estate litigation.
What is Estate Litigation?
Even if you plan your estate as well and as thoroughly as possible, sometimes litigation happens anyway. Oftentimes litigation is simply unavoidable, especially in the case of outstanding debts. Certain objections that arise during administration cannot be planned for, and sometimes, beneficiaries or heirs seem determined to cause a fuss no matter how the administration actually pans out.
If you find yourself caught in estate litigation, don’t worry. Though it may initially sound like an awful and frustrating process, it is actually something that is relatively common. Courts are no strangers to estate litigation, and usually these things can be settled relatively simply, provided all involved parties are willing to behave rationally and calmly.
Why Estate Litigation?
Even though no one ever really wants to go through the process of estate litigation, it is often inescapable. Two of the most common reasons for estate litigation include:
Creditor disputes. Disagreements commonly occur if the personal representative (i.e., the individual selected to administer the will, including the payment of outstanding debts) determines that a creditor’s claim is either inaccurate or invalid. If a creditor requests a claim—that is, asks for a certain amount of money that he claims that the decedent owed to him—and it is approved, that money will simply be paid out of the decedent’s remaining assets. If it is denied, however, the creditor would need to submit a petition to the court, which could result in estate litigation.
Will contests regarding the division of assets. This is the scenario that most people are familiar with because it is the one most often dramatized in the media—the “Who gets what?” dispute. When a person dies, the people named in his will are called his beneficiaries. These are the individuals who the decedent elected to leave his remaining assets to. In addition to beneficiaries, though, the decedent may have also left behind heirs, those who would legally be entitled to some of the decedent’s assets had there not been a will involved.
Sometimes, beneficiaries and heirs are one and the same; other times, they are not. When it comes time to divide assets, both beneficiaries and heirs are required to be present during the administration, and both parties are entitled to contest a will, which they may do if they disagree with the way the assets are being distributed.
These are the two most common reasons for estate litigation. In addition to these, however, there are many other possible reasons for estate litigation, many of which also fall under the realm of “will contests.” These include:
- Claiming that the will is invalid (usually due to the fact that a newer will was drawn up more recently)
- Claiming that the decedent was not mentally capable during the time when the will was drawn up
- Claiming abuse of power of attorney
- Claiming that the will was not sufficiently witnessed and thus may be invalid
Any situation that results in estate litigation is usually inherently complicated, but certain factors can muddle the process even further. For instance, things could get particularly thorny if a new spouse is present and the will that the decedent left did not include him or her. If this or any other potentially complicated scenario comes up, a knowledgeable Florida probate attorney will be able to support and guide you through it.
There is so much to consider when dealing with the administration of an estate—so many small details can have such significance in so many different areas. Because this area of the law is so nuanced, it is critical to work with an experienced lawyer every step of the way. If you have any questions about an estate, either yours or a loved one’s, contact our offices today.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation