Estate planning is a complicated area of law that requires legal representatives to work closely with individuals who are the designated representatives of a deceased person’s estate.

Prior to the person’s death, they will typically assign a person to become the executor or administrator of their estate in a will. An executor is responsible for carrying out the legal duties that are associated with the distribution of an estate.

Given the amount of parties, types of properties, and laws that apply to this complex process, there are numerous ways in which an estate planning lawsuit can arise.

Some examples of the potential types of disputes that may arise during the process include:

  • Fraudulent Transfers: When an individual transfers their property and/or assets to another person or entity, it takes the particular property or assets out of the reach of creditors. This means that creditors cannot attempt to use these items to pay off the deceased’s debts without further permissions from the estate, or by actions that are not in compliance with the guidelines set out in the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“UFTA”).
    • For example, if the person who is transferring the estate property is left bankrupt by the transfer, then this transfer may constitute constructive fraud (as opposed to actual fraud, which is defined in section 4(b) of the UTFA). Instances, such as insider transfers and concealment of assets, may be included under actual fraud.
  • Suing an Executor: The executor of an estate can be sued if there is evidence of improper or illegal distribution of property or inheritance.
  • Undue Influence: If family members or other beneficiaries who have an interest in a will, suspect that the person who created the will (i.e., the testator) was under some form of coercion or duress from another party (usually one with an interest in the will), then a claim for undue influence may arise.
    • For example, this can occur when the person writing the will is sick or weak, from either physical or mental conditions, which leads them to make unsound decisions about the will during its execution.
      • Additionally, undue influence claims may arise when a professional who has a relationship with a testator that is confidential in nature (e.g., an attorney, doctor, etc.), and causes the deceased to make financial decisions about the distribution of property and/or assets that are illegal or unfair. Such matters are generally settled in probate court.
  • Breach of Fiduciary Duty: As previously mentioned, the executor or administrator of the estate has particular and legally mandated duties that help to ensure that the process of distributing the testator’s estate is done in a manner that is accurate, fair, and legal.
    • In addition to making sure that debts are paid off and inheritances are properly provided to the entitled parties, executors are also responsible for communicating with beneficiaries and keeping track of asset market values.
      • If an executor neglects any of their mandated duties, then it could lead to a breach of fiduciary duty case; especially, if their conduct results in the loss of property and/or assets.

How are Estate Planning Cases Resolved?

There are several ways to resolve an estate planning case. Some estate planning cases are settled through an informal discussion amongst the parties involved in the matter, or through other non-adversarial proceedings (i.e., not court), such as mediation.

In some instances, the case must be taken to probate court to reach a solution. The court may order that the executor be removed or replaced in some cases. In others, a probate judge might have to determine a new way to distribute the estate’s assets according to a particular state’s statutes concerning trust and estate laws.

If significant losses have occurred as the result of actions that amount to illegal estate planning, then a court may instruct damages to be paid out (e.g., monetary awards) to the party injured by such conduct.

What are Some Defenses to Estate Planning Cases?

The type of defense that applies will depend on the nature of the estate planning case. Some estate planning matters must be addressed within a specific period of time known as the “statute of limitations.” If the statute of limitations for a particular estate claim has expired, then a defendant may be able to request that the court dismiss the case.

As for matters that involve claims of undue influence, it might be a defense if a party can show that a third party also provided similar advice as the person being accused of undue influence.

Alternatively, the defendant can also defend against a claim for undue influence by demonstrating to the court that the final distribution of property and/or assets was not unfair or illegal.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with an Estate Planning Case?

The technicalities involved in estate planning cases heavily depend on a combination of both finance and legal requirements. Therefore, if you have any questions or concerns regarding estate planning cases or potential claims, it may be helpful to hire a local estate lawyer for further assistance.

An experienced estate lawyer will be able to provide legal guidance about the laws and processes that pertain to estate planning, and can also determine whether or not you have a claim that requires legal action to be resolved.

Additionally, should you need to appear in court or participate in a mediation session, a lawyer will be able to provide representation or assistance for these procedures as well.