Wills, Trusts, and Estates in Utah

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 What Is Wills, Trusts, and Estates Law?

A person’s estate consists of all of their property, including:

  • Personal items;
  • Bank accounts;
  • Real estate;
  • Stocks and securities; and
  • Other such assets.

When you die, your estate plan will provide instructions regarding how your property will be managed and distributed.

A well-developed estate plan has a number of benefits. An example of this would be how a clear plan can minimize your loved one’s tax burden, as well as the need for probate court proceedings.

Although estate planning is most commonly associated with wills and trusts, it can also address other issues such as:

  • How you are to receive medical treatment when you are incapacitated;
  • Organ donation status;
  • Who will make legal and financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated;
  • Who will care for your minor children when you become incapacitated or die;
  • Who will take over your business interests; and
  • Your funeral arrangements, specifically whether you have prepaid for a burial plot, funeral service, etc.

If you do not create an estate plan for yourself, your estate will be distributed according to your state’s specific intestate succession laws. These laws vary from state to state, and can result in property distributions that are not aligned with what you may have wanted. This is why it is important to provide an estate plan for yourself.

What Are Will Settlements?

The term “will settlement” refers to the legal procedures that are used to resolve disputes associated with a will. A will is a legally binding document, which is created and signed by a person for the purpose of distributing their property and assets upon their death. This person is referred to as either the “testator” or the “decedent.” The will document contains instructions for how the testator’s property and assets are to be distributed after their death, as well as specifying to whom what specific assets are to be distributed.

Upon the testator’s death, the will is submitted to a court to be “probated,” or proven. In short, the will is submitted to the court who then distributes the decedent’s property according to the will’s terms. This process allows the judge to give their legal approval for the property distribution. The exact process for probate in Utah will be further discussed below as a means of dispute resolution.

Ideally, the will’s terms are clear so that the judge approves the distribution, and each beneficiary receives the distribution without any argument. However, disagreements regarding the distribution of money or property frequently occur. This is most common among family members who either inherited something from the will but believe it is incorrect, or did not inherit something from the will but believe that they should have. Such disagreements are resolved by a process known as will settlement.

Will settlement frequently requires referring to the documents that were created as part of the estate planning process. An example of this would be how if a will indicates certain property is to be disposed of by trust, the trust document that was created during estate planning may be examined in order to resolve the dispute. As such, estate planning documents may provide information that is relevant to and necessary for will settlement.

How Are Wills, Trusts, and Estates Disputes Typically Resolved in Utah?

Will settlements can happen privately, or through court intervention. Private settlement involves negotiation between the executor and beneficiaries who have taken issue with what was, or what was not, distributed to them under the will. Private settlement generally consists of these parties directly speaking with each other in order to resolve disagreements.

Private settlement may also involve the use of an intermediary, a process that is known as alternative dispute resolution. Alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) involves submission of the dispute to an arbitrator or mediator, or other neutral third party. ADR is generally less expensive when compared to traditional court proceedings, and allows for faster dispute resolution.

In terms of Utah probate, probate is required if the estate includes real property of any value, and/or if the estate has assets (other than land and not including cars) whose net worth is more than $100,000.

When probate is not required by law, it could be possible to collect personal property by using a small estate affidavit. In the state of Utah, a small estate affidavit is not filed with the courts; rather, the decedent’s successor completes the form and signs it before a notary. They then provide it to any third parties, such as the bank.

A small estate affidavit may be used if:

  • The entire value of the estate is less than $100,000;
  • There is no real property associated with the estate;
  • At least 30 days have passed since the death of the testator; and
  • No application for appointment of personal representative has been filed.

Some other examples of commonly used remedies for estate planning disputes in general include:

  • Removal Of The Executor: If a dispute involves the executor, it may be necessary to have the executor removed and replaced. A neutral outside party can be a good choice, as they are someone who does not stand to inherit; and
  • Litigation Of The Dispute: In order to litigate, a person must have standing, or be listed as one of the inheritors of the decedent. They must also have sufficient grounds for their claim. Litigation may result in a damages award, or the redistribution of property.

What Is a Will Contest Under Utah Laws?

In lieu of alternative dispute resolution, a dissatisfied party can initiate a will contest in court. Will contests are heard by judges known as probate judges, and they resolve contested issues by applying the relevant law so as to best give effect to what the testator’s wishes were regarding estate distribution.

In Utah, will contests generally subject parties to significant court costs and attorneys’ fees. These proceedings can also take months or even years before they are resolved.

In a will contest, a dissatisfied party challenges part or all of the will on specific grounds. These grounds may include, but are not limited to:

  • Whether the testator had testamentary capacity or legal capacity in which to create a will;
  • Whether a will, or part of a will, resulted from fraud or forgery;
  • Whether another will exists, that would render the disputed will as outdated or void;
  • Whether the proper formalities were observed during will execution, such as whether witnesses were present, or whether the testator acknowledged their signature in the witnesses’ presence; and/or
  • There is a latent ambiguity in the will, such that introduction of evidence relevant to the intent of what the testator said before they died may be required. A latent ambiguity is a misdescription of persons or property. The misdescription, however, is not exactly obvious. An example of this would be when a will provides, “I give $1,000 to JJS.” The testator has a relative named JAS, and another named JPS, but none named JJS.

Should I Hire a Utah Lawyer?

If you have any questions associated with wills, trusts, and estates in Utah, you should consult with an experienced Utah estate lawyer. A Utah attorney will be best suited to helping you understand your rights and legal options according to Utah’s specific estate laws. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed, should any legal disputes arise.

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