Common Disputes in Trust and Probate Litigation

Settling estates and distributing inheritances is often a challenging process fraught with potential conflict, even in families that see eye-to-eye. Legal disputes frequently ensue when ambiguities in wills and trusts lead to different interpretations of the deceased’s wishes.

Perceptions of unfair asset division can also spark lawsuits between heirs seeking a more significant share. Given the complexities, it is no surprise probate courts have full dockets handling trust and probate litigation. Some common legal disputes include:

Challenging the Validity of a Will or Trust

If heirs believe a will or trust was made under duress or that the deceased lacked mental capacity when executing legal documents, the validity may be challenged. This can spark intense conflicts within families as the court proceedings unfold.

Contesting How Assets Are Distributed

Even if a will or trust is valid, heirs may raise legal objections over how assets are divided up or distributed. For example, if one child believes they deserve a larger share of the inheritance, they could initiate a lawsuit arguing the allocations are unfair.

Disagreements Among Trustees and Beneficiaries

Trustees must manage trust assets in the best interest of beneficiaries. However, trustees sometimes make decisions that beneficiaries oppose, leading to allegations of breach of fiduciary duties. This is another common source of trust litigation.

Seeking an Accounting of Trust Assets and Transactions

Beneficiaries are entitled to an accounting that discloses how trust assets are invested and managed, details income and expenses, etc. If trustees fail to provide adequate accountings, lawsuits may follow seeking transparency.

Removal Requests Due to Trustee Misconduct

When trustees engage in financial misconduct, display incompetence in asset management, or otherwise breach their fiduciary responsibilities, beneficiaries can petition courts to remove them. Some common grounds for removal requests include:

  • Misappropriation of trust assets for the trustee’s personal use
  • Failure to diversify investments or properly manage assets
  • Poor record-keeping and accounting of trust transactions
  • Conflicts of interest, such as self-dealing or business relationships with trust-owned entities
  • Failure to make required distributions to beneficiaries
  • Interference with a beneficiary’s rights under the trust

Trustees can defend against removal by arguing their actions were allowed under the trust terms or did not violate fiduciary duties. They may claim decisions were reasonable under the circumstances. However, courts often side with beneficiaries if there is clear evidence of misconduct or conduct showing the trustee lacks integrity or ability to administer the trust properly.

Resolutions Without Going to Court

Before resorting to lawsuits, heirs should explore alternative dispute resolution options. Mediating trust and probate disputes often leads to optimal outcomes, saving relationships and avoiding the expense of litigation. An experienced mediator can find common ground if parties negotiate in good faith. Mediation is usually less adversarial, allows more participation, and preserves confidentiality compared to court proceedings.

If they go to court, a judge will consider applicable will, trust, and probate laws before deciding the merits of each party’s arguments. Rulings can be made after both sides present evidence supporting their positions, either through summary judgment or trial. Judges also have the discretion to encourage litigants to return to mediation at any point in the court process.

While emotional tensions run high in these situations, maintaining open and respectful communication channels gives families the best chance of resolving conflict without permanently damaging relationships. Seeking to genuinely understand all perspectives can go a long way during turbulent times after a loved one passes away.

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