Estate planning is designed to give finality to what a person wishes to happen to their property and debts after they pass away. But this isn’t always the end of the story. Litigation over estates frequently occurs and can involve numerous parties. While the death of a loved one is a time of grief, estate litigation can add a measure of stress. Whether you are facing legal action or you need to initiate it, you deserve a dedicated law firm that can take the uncertainty out of the process. You need Patrick, Harper & Dixon, LLP.
What Does Estate Litigation Include?
Because estate planning is broad – involving everything from wills and trusts to powers of attorney – litigation also covers a wide range of issues. A fiduciary such as an estate executor may find him- or herself the target of a lawsuit over alleged abuse of discretion. Meanwhile, a beneficiary may decide to file a lawsuit because he or she believes a will is forged. Estate litigation can also address elder abuse, which typically concerns financial matters.
Our law firm represents both plaintiffs and defendants in all aspects of estate litigation. If you’ve been named in a lawsuit or you believe one is necessary to preserve an estate or your inheritance rights, it’s time to speak to an attorney.
A will caveat is a legal challenge to the validity of a will that has been presented for probate. An interested party, who is someone with a financial or beneficiary interest in the decedent’s estate, can file a caveat action. The reasons for challenging a will are varied and include:
- Lack of capacity. This means the testator (the person who executed the will) lacked mental capacity to do so. While North Carolina presumes a testator was capable of signing a will, a caveator may be able to show the person did not understand what he or she was doing.
- Undue influence. The elderly are often targets for unscrupulous relatives and third parties who attempt to coerce them into executing wills in their favor. The courts will evaluate a number of factors to determine whether a will was the product of undue influence, including the age of the testator and the relationship of the individual who exerted influence.
- Fraud. This can take different forms. For instance, a will could contain a forged signature. Or someone may have made a material misrepresentation to the testator that affected the contents of the will.
Removing An Executor Or Trustee
The executor of a will is responsible for faithfully carrying out the decedent’s final wishes as expressed in the last will and testament. As a fiduciary, the executor may be held liable for mismanaging estate assets, failing to file probate, failing to distribute the estate assets as directed in the will, and more. Although removing an executor is no simple task, failing to do so could jeopardize the estate and do irreparable harm to the financial interests of its beneficiaries.
Some of the reasons for litigating over trusts are similar to those for will contests. Examples include:
Trust formation issues. If the trust was formed because of fraud, duress, lack of capacity, or undue influence, it may be possible for a beneficiary or other party to challenge it. A trust may also be challenged after it was modified. As with will contests, the person who questions the validity of the trust must have compelling evidence to prove something is wrong with it.
Trustee issues. Trustees are fiduciaries, and they have certain obligations imposed upon them by law. They must, for instance, act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. A trustee may be accused of fraud, self-dealing, wasteful management of trust assets, and other breaches of his or her duties.
Power Of Attorney Abuse
There are two types of powers of attorney that routinely arise in estate planning: durable power of attorney (which allows a designated agent to manage someone’s financial, business, and other personal affairs) and healthcare power of attorney (which allows someone else to make medical decisions for you). These instruments grant considerable authority by allowing designated agents to make decisions if the principal (the person who makes the power of attorney) becomes incapacitated.
Of course, this opens the door to potential abuse. As an example, a power of attorney signature may have been forged. Or the agent may abuse his or her authority and defraud the principal. Legal action can be taken to remove the agent and potentially recover any stolen funds.
Elder abuse usually takes the form of financial exploitation of an older individual. While strangers can commit such abuse, it is often perpetrated by relatives. The abuser could be someone with a power of attorney, or it may be someone who simply has access to the victim’s financial information.
Some of the signs of elder abuse are:
- Unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts
- Unexplained credit card charges and other purchases
- Missing jewelry, cash, and other valuables
- Sudden changes in wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents
- Unexpected changes in property ownership (e.g. of a house or vehicle)
Elderly individuals with diminished capacity or who have minimal contact with family members are especially at risk of elder abuse. Our litigation team can take action to protect the victim and recover misappropriated funds and property.
Other Estate Litigation Matters We Handle
Some of the other estate planning issues we litigate are:
- Guardianship and incompetency proceedings
- Probate contests
- Elective share claims
- Trust modification and termination
- Actions to compel accounting
- Fee disputes
Contact Our Hickory Estate Litigation Attorney
Estate litigation can be emotionally difficult and invoke a number of complex issues. No matter which side of a lawsuit you are on, having seasoned legal counsel is essential. Let the team at Patrick, Harper & Dixon, LLP help. Give us a call now to schedule your confidential consultation.