Do You Know How to Prevent Will Disputes?

Five Common Probate Lawsuits and the Steps You Can Take To Avoid Costly Probate Litigation For Each One

A wise jurist once said, “Will disputes are inevitable!” Well even if that were true, it shouldn’t imply that will challenges are unpreventable.

Emotions run high when loved ones pass away, and folks should prepare for problems to arise even when valid testamentary documents enter probate or when the will distributes assets equally among heirs and beneficiaries.

Avoiding expensive trust and estate litigation however is fairly easy, especially when you have an expert will dispute attorney by your side to counsel you.

Let’s have a look at five common will contest lawsuits in Iowa and examine how beneficiaries and testators can act to prevent interested parties from bringing legal action during probate proceedings.

#1   Executor Removal Lawsuits – Estate Settlement Delays

Personal representatives are responsible for opening probate, settling the estate, administering remaining assets and winding down proceedings.

In a perfect world, these tasks can take less than a year to perform, but the will contest attorneys at iowaprobatelitigation.com know that probate proceedings on average can take two years or even longer to complete, especially when interested parties seek to have executors removed.

  • Probate Protocol Communication. Let’s assume a personal representative receives a probate grant within two months after submitting the will. The law allows creditors to file claims against the estate up to four months after the executor publishes a second notice of probate. The IRS and state tax agencies also need time to review estate tax returns, which can take up to nine months to approve.

As you can see, probate administration is a slow and drawn-out process. Beneficiaries and heirs however don’t know this and are mostly concerned about receiving their inheritance as soon as possible.

Establishing direct contact with interested parties and forming reasonable probate protocol expectations as soon as probate opens makes everyone happy and is therefore a must-do for avoiding costly executor removal proceedings.

  • Estate Attorney Assistance. Lawyers can ease anxious or worried minds by contacting the decedent’s heirs early on to:
  • Explain how probate proceedings work.
  • Advise beneficiaries that Iowa law allows executors up to three years to close proceedings.
  • Inform heirs that the courts routinely grant executors extensions when settling complicated estates.
  • Proactive Estate Management. Personal representatives can likewise make heirs happy by performing a partial distribution of assets to beneficiaries before probate winds down, but only after first setting aside funds to pay all estate debts and taxes.

#2   Estate Litigation – Disagreements in Asset Distribution

Properly executed testamentary documents frequently contain a disinheritance, surprising inter vivos gift transfers or forced sales of personal property or valuable real estate to pay debts.

Executors should therefore expect heirs and beneficiaries to bring estate litigation lawsuits when the will distributes assets unevenly or when the testamentary documents in probate legitimately seizes an interested party’s expected inheritance.

  • Real Property Sales. Beneficiaries sometimes try to block executors from selling real estate during probate by seeking court-ordered injunctions to strike down the deals. Iowa Probate Code however determines how executors must settle estates and establishes which assets the heirs will ultimately take.

The estate must first pay court costs, appraisal fees, funeral expenses, the deceased’s unpaid credit debts, probate and attorney fees, the testator’s unpaid child or spousal support and estate taxes before it can distribute assets among heirs as provided for in the will.

Probate rules may accordingly compel the executor to sell a family home if the estate does not possess the cash to settle all its debts—valuable information that beneficiaries should consider before they overwhelm the estate with even more debt by bringing an expensive will dispute lawsuit to light.

  • Unexpected Disinheritance. Will challenges also arise when beneficiaries believe the decedent’s testamentary documents seized their inheritance or inappropriately disregarded their legitimate needs.

Such challengers often assume the courts will redraft the estate planning document or revoke the will, but more often than not, their expectations are wrong. 

Estate attorneys regularly examine their client’s testamentary capacity before allowing him or her to execute estate planning documents. Estate lawyers further make diligent attempts to verify that the will truly expresses the testator’s intent—with those principles clearly in place, interested parties will have a tough time finding a competent will dispute attorney to represent their interests in probate court.

  • Inter Vivo Gifts. Properly gifting assets before and after death likewise bequests certain property rights to individuals. Beneficiaries of such gifts further hold legal grounds to reasonably expect conveyance when testators provide for gifting in their wills.

Again, estates may evade facing expensive probate litigation by allowing their seasoned estate planning attorney to document inter vivos gift transfers diligently—this evidence shows the property conveyance was both intended and legal.

#3   Fiduciary Litigation – Suspicious Fiduciary Activity

Beneficiaries regularly become suspicious when testamentary documents convey property interests to fiduciaries during probate.

Suspicion may further arise if accounting reviews reveal the fiduciary spent considerable amounts of cash or commingled estate assets while performing their duties, resulting in an unfair reduction of an heir’s inheritance.

  • Fiduciary Performance. Eliminating suspicion for avoiding costly fiduciary litigation is complex and requires fiduciaries to act affirmatively during their tenures.
  • Enter into valid care agreements with testators.
  • Open communication channels with beneficiaries.
  • Keep detailed and accurate records.
  • Avoid cash transactions and refuse gifts.
  • Stay far away from estate planning activities.
  • Repair bad relationships with family members.

The fiduciary litigation attorneys at iowaprobatelitigation.com have blogged extensively on this topic and have recently put together a list of recommendations for fiduciaries to consider—have a look if evading fiduciary litigation and escaping fiduciary removal proceedings concerns you.

#4   Undue Influence Lawsuits – Inheritance Hijackings

In order to be valid, testamentary documents in probate must solely reflect the testator’s intent and the decedent must have executed the estate planning instrument freely and without undue influence from another.

  • Inheritance Hijacking. Challenging a will after it enters probate unfortunately may be the only option available for beneficiaries who discover a fiduciary, family member or friend of the deceased hijacked their inheritance by engaging in undue influence.

Heirs can however carefully monitor their estates while the testator is alive and interrupt wrongful influential acts before they take place by:

  • Removing individuals who breach their legal fiduciaries duties owed to the estate.
  • Severing confidential relationships between testators and wrongdoers who exploit their influence to steal another heir’s inheritance.

We must also remind beneficiaries that the courts will seize the estate and follow intestacy rules when dividing assets if the challenger wins their undue influence lawsuit and no earlier will exists to fall back on—such circumstances may produce unfavorable consequences for the entire estate.

#5   Improper Execution – Executing Informal Testamentary Documents

Estate and trust dispute attorneys in Iowa have seen their fair share of homemade wills and testamentary documents created from online templates—most informal estate planning instruments are challengeable in court simply because they are incomplete or poorly executed.

  • Informal Testamentary Documents. Properly drafted wills must include clear provisions and directions that control the distribution of estate assets after the testator’s death. The Iowa courts will further revoke a will if:
  • It’s not in writing.
  • It’s not signed by the testator.
  • It doesn’t hold legal declarations.
  • It doesn’t contain two competent witnesses signatures endorsed during execution.

Similar to undue influence cases, once an improperly executed testamentary document enters probate, the estate is almost certain to face costly probate litigation brought by disgruntled interested parties who expect to inherit fairly from the will.

Beneficiaries can avoid these lawsuits by making sure seasoned estate planning attorneys draft, review and execute the testator’s will—this means no handwritten documents and staying away from the do-it-yourself estate planning websites that offer free testamentary document creation without attorney consultation.

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