As California estate planning attorneys, the team at Solan, Park & Robello has seen it all. We stress the importance of crafting a thorough estate plan to prevent risk through the probate process.
In the end, even the perfect plan can end up in dispute by people who feel like they’re being wronged by the estate. There are multiple ways of handling such disputes, including getting the dispute outright dismissed, settling through mutual agreement, mediation, or probate, or resolving the dispute through litigation.
It’s important to understand how a dispute can be filed and how the process plays out from there. Whether you’re the one filing the dispute or you’re the representative of an estate looking to have a dispute settled, knowing the process will help you navigate what’s to come.
Who can contest an estate?
In California, like many other states, you have to have a vested interest in the estate to dispute it. This means any random person off the street will not be permitted to contest the details of an estate they have no connection to (any attempts to do so will be quickly dismissed).
Instead, any direct heirs to the estate (such as sons, daughters, spouses, etc.) and anyone who has, at some point, been mentioned by the estate qualify. If someone’s name was in a previous version of the estate then they can contest the estate claiming their involvement should prevail. If someone’s named in the final version of the estate but believes they’re entitled to more for verifiable reasons then they may also file a dispute.
A dispute must be officially filed in the county court where the estate is filed. Once the dispute is made and verified to have at least a legal standing to continue, a trial will be scheduled to adjudicate the issue.
What are common grounds for a dispute?
Once the courts can verify that the person(s) filing the dispute have a legal right to do so then the grounds of the dispute must be vetted. There are numerous reasons someone may dispute an estate, including:
- Fraud or forgery of estate documents
- Undue influence or coercion
- Questions about the physical or mental capacity of the person behind the estate
In cases of fraud, significant evidence will be needed to prove that the most recent documents were not actually filed by the person behind the estate. This can mean that someone mocked up a new draft and forged the estate’s signature. Handwriting experts can assist in verifying these claims.
In cases of undue influence, coercion, or capacity concerns, the claim questions whether the will was filed while the person behind the state was of clear mind. Undue influence is essentially a situation where the person was pressured into filing the estate in a manner that supports someone who is not owed such influence. Coercion involves cases where the estate was influenced by the use of threat or force (either to the person behind the estate or to others they care for).
Settling a dispute
A trial is generally the least preferred option in these cases. Families are already dealing with the loss of a loved one and will want to move on and heal. So, settlement discussions are often the preferred route to prevent an ugly trial situation.
There are no limits on settlement discussions, so the parties can consider what supporting evidence is present before making any final determinations. For instance, if the person filing the dispute has significant supporting documentation then it may be in the best interest of the estate to find a satisfactory settlement before the courts get involved. If the person filing the dispute has little to no evidence then the estate may be more likely to let the courts dismiss the dispute.
If you fail to settle the dispute then the courts will review all current and former estate documents, discuss with the attorneys on both sides, and review all new evidence before making a final determination. If coercion by threat or force is proven then it’s possible that further court proceedings will be necessary for a separate criminal trial.
Nobody should have to sort through their loved one’s estate during ugly probate or court battles. Your choice of attorney matters because it can be the difference between making sure everybody gets what they deserve and putting an estate through the legal blender. At Solan, Park & Robello, we have extensive experience handling California estates and settling disputes that arise with them. Contact our team of attorneys who care for your future.
Solan, Park & Robello
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