Society needs a way to wrap up the affairs of people who pass away; some way to ensure that debts are paid, that the property of the deceased is passed on to the living, that both of these things occur with as little conflict and controversy as possible, and that they occur in accord with the wishes of the deceased. Probate is the device through which the law provides the following: a personal representative of the estate responsible for wrapping matters up, a neutral official to oversee the process, and a forum where creditors, relatives, and claimants of all types can bring their claims.
The process works well in most cases, but not all. Disputes are most common when the terms of the will aren’t clear, and when the deceased’s relatives or other beneficiaries are truly unhappy with their treatment under the will. The latter is especially likely when:
- The will is generous to someone who had provided constant care to the deceased before death, raising the possibility that the caregiver exercised undue influence on the deceased.
- Feuds and rivalries already existed among the beneficiaries.
Serious disputes can quickly turn what is designed to be a simple process into a bitter, lengthy, and expensive legal battle. They not only delay the estate’s final settlement, but can create or deepen existing divisions among the deceased’s family. When disputes over a family member’s will, a West Palm Beach probate attorney with extensive knowledge of Florida’s many laws can help you through the process.
Disputes Challenging the Will
The deceased’s will is the foundation of the probate proceeding. The most fundamental attack on it is the claim that it simply is not valid under the state’s laws. These challenges tend to be vigorously resisted by beneficiaries who fare better under the will than they would if there was no will.
There are many different grounds for contesting the will’s validity. Some are more complicated than others, and the type of evidence needed to resolve the dispute varies considerably.
- Claims that the will doesn’t fulfill the technical requirements of the state are relatively simple disputes that don’t usually require much evidence beyond the will itself and the relevant law.
- Claims that there is a will that was executed after the one submitted for probate are often extremely complicated, especially if a second will is produced.
- Claims that the will is a forgery require expert analysis and testimony.
- Claims that the deceased’s mental status was impaired to the degree that he/she lacked the legally required mental capacity to make a will are among the most complex disputes in probate. They typically require considerable testimony from both mental health experts and lay witnesses who knew and interacted with the deceased near the time the will was made. It doesn’t matter that the mental status may have degenerated between the time the will was made and the time of death—it’s the status at the time the will was executed that matters.
- Claims of undue influence usually from a caregiver or a person to whom the deceased was exceptionally close also are complicated and require considerable evidence as to the nature of the relationship between the deceased and the alleged influencer, as well as between the deceased and the people who are challenging the will. In many of these cases, the deceased is also in a psychologically vulnerable state, raising challenges similar to lack of capacity.
Other Common Probate Disputes
Not all disputes contest the overall validity of the will. Other common disputes involve:
- Claims by the personal representative that property of the estate was improperly transferred.
- The validity of a creditor’s claim against the estate.
- Claims charging the trustee of misconduct.
- Disputes over who falls within a class of beneficiaries (i.e., who qualifies as a “child”).
“No Contest” Clauses
A common device to protect a person’s desires upon death is to try to fend off challenges to the will is a clause in the will that cuts out a beneficiary who contests the will. While most states enforce these clauses to some degree, Florida, by statute, has made them unenforceable.
Get Experienced Legal Help When Facing or Initiating a Probate Dispute
At the West Palm Beach law firm of attorney Todd A. Zuckerbrod, P.A., we understand the issues that surround wills and probate proceedings and how to resolve them. Call us at any time if you have questions and concerns about any Florida probate proceeding. There is no fee for the initial consultation.