Common Types of Estate Planning Cases

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 What are Some Standard Types of Estate Planning Cases?

Estate planning is an area of law that requires legal representatives to work closely with the people who have been designated to serve as the representatives of a deceased person’s estate.

Prior to passing away, many people prepare a will. Typically in the will a person is named who should serve as the executor or administrator of the estate of the deceased person. An executor is responsible for carrying out the duties that are associated with probating a will and then distributing an estate.

Given the number of people, types of property, and laws that apply to the probate process, there are numerous ways in which an estate planning lawsuit can arise.

Some examples of the types of disputes that can arise during the probate process include the following:

  • Fraudulent Transfers: When a person transfers an asset to another person or entity without receiving something of adequate value in return, it takes that asset out of reach of creditors. This means that creditors cannot seek to use these items to pay off the deceased’s debts. Or the creditor would have to resort to actions that are not in compliance with the guidelines of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“UFTA”).
    • For example, if a person who transfers property that should belong to their estate is left bankrupt by the transfer, then this transfer may constitute constructive fraud. Acts such as insider transfers and concealment of assets, may be considered as actual fraud.
    • If a transfer is fraudulent, a creditor or the estate may file a lawsuit against the person to whom the asset was transferred. The goal would be to set aside the transfer so as to use the asset to satisfy a creditor’s claim, and or distribute the property to a beneficiary as provided in the will.
  • Suing an Executor: The executor of an estate can be sued if there is evidence of improper or illegal distribution of an asset of the estate or a share of the inheritance. Or, the executor may be guilty of some other kind of malfeasance. For example, an executor might transfer the title to property without authorization, use estate funds to invest in their own properties or companies, use estate funds to pay their own expenses or give themselves unreasonable compensation. Conduct of this type on the part of the executor may necessitate legal action;
  • 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 subject to coercion or duress from another person (usually one with an interest in the will), then they may have a claim for undue influence.
    • For example, when the person writing a will is sick or weak because of either physical or mental conditions, it can lead them to make unsound decisions about the will when it is prepared, especially if someone with an interest in the estate of the person tries to influence the person’s choices..
    • Additionally, undue influence claims may arise if a professional has a relationship with the person preparing a will that is confidential, e.g., an attorney, doctor, or the like, and causes the person to make decisions about the distribution of their assets that are illegal or unfair. Such matters are generally litigated in probate court.
  • Breach of Fiduciary Duty: As previously mentioned, the executor or administrator of an estate has a fiduciary duty. This means that they must fulfill their responsibilities as mandated by law and in a manner that is completely ethical. They must ensure that the process of managing and distributing the deceased person’s estate is done in a manner that is fair, legal and in accordance with the provisions of the will.
    • In addition to making sure that debts are paid off and inheritances are properly provided to the beneficiaries entitled to them, executors are also responsible for communicating with beneficiaries and keeping track of the market value of assets. If an executor neglects any of their mandated duties, then it could lead to a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, especially, if their conduct results in the loss of assets.
  • Lack of Capacity: Under the law, a person preparing their will is required to have the necessary mental competency to do that and to understand the nature of their assets and the people to whom these assets are going to be distributed. A will can be declared void if it can be proven that the person who made the will lacked the necessary capacity. Usually, incompetence is established through a prior medical diagnosis of some kind of mental illness.
  • Forged Documents: If someone suspects that estate planning documents such as a will or a trust are forged, or that signatures have been forged, there will definitely be a legal challenge to the plan.

How Are Estate Planning Cases Resolved?

There are a number of different ways to resolve estate planning conflicts. Some estate planning cases are settled through informal discussion or negotiation among the people involved in the issue. Or, a conflict can be resolved through other dispute resolution measures that do not involve a lawsuit in a court of law, such as mediation or arbitration.

Sometimes, however, a case must be taken to probate court to reach a solution. A lawsuit has to be filed. In the end, 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 relating to estates. Or, an executor may have to initiate a lawsuit in order to recover assets of the estate that have been fraudulently transferred. The exact remedy depends, of course, on the nature of the claim.

What are Some Defenses to Estate Planning Cases?

The type of defense that applies depends on the nature of the estate planning case. Some estate issues 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 competent third party also provided advice similar to that provided by the person accused of undue influence. Alternatively, the defendant can defend against a claim of undue influence by demonstrating to the court that the distribution of the assets provided for in the will is neither unfair nor contrary to law.

Each of the types of disputes noted above is quite distinct and defenses depend on the exact nature of the case.

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

If you want to prepare a will or an entire estate plan, or if you are named as an executor or a beneficiary in a will and have any questions or concerns regarding potential claims, it may be helpful to consult an experienced local estate lawyer for further assistance.

An experienced estate lawyer will be able to provide legal guidance about the law that applies to your situation and processes that pertain to estate planning and probate, 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. These are technical and complicated areas of the law, so you want to consult a qualified estate lawyer in order to get the best possible result.

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