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Probate litigation can be complex and encompass a wide range of disputes that arise after someone passes away. This article focuses on the types of evidence that can be critical in three of the most common conflict areas: challenges to a will's validity, disputes over interpreting a will or trust, and disagreements about the conduct of executors, administrators, or trustees, and will discuss the documents, testimony, and other evidence that can be dispositive in resolving those disputes. 

Challenging the Validity of a Will

Often, circumstances call into question the very validity of the will itself. This could happen if there are concerns that the will wasn't properly executed, that the deceased lacked the mental capacity to understand what they were signing, or that they were manipulated or pressured into changing their estate plans against their true wishes. 

When a will's validity is contested, the following documents can reveal potential red flags or provide crucial context: 

  • The Will(s): If there are multiple versions of the will, inconsistencies between them could be a sign of tampering or undue influence. Any changes or additions that appear suddenly, without explanation, can raise questions about whether they reflect the deceased's true intentions. Furthermore, the will needs to meet specific legal requirements regarding signatures and witnesses in order to be considered valid.
  • Medical Records: If the deceased's mental capacity is at issue, their medical records can be essential. Diagnoses of conditions like dementia, medications that could impair judgment, or other health-related information might cast doubt on the deceased's ability to make sound decisions about their will.
  • Correspondence: It's important to consider correspondence, such as emails, letters, or texts when investigating the relationships of the deceased and any potential manipulations that may have occurred. By reviewing this type of communication, one may uncover any attempts to isolate the deceased, pressure them about their will, or detect hints of promises or threats connected to potential inheritance. 

Testimony from individuals who interacted with the deceased can shed light on their mental capacity and susceptibility to undue influence, and provide insight into whether their decisions were autonomously made or influenced by external pressures.

  • Witnesses to the Will Signing: Those present when the will was signed can testify about whether the deceased seemed confused, pressured, or hesitant at the time.
  • Family, Friends, Caregivers: People close to the deceased often notice behavioral changes of concern. Testimony about declining mental capacity, increasing vulnerability, or sudden, unexplained shifts in relationships can be relevant if undue influence is suspected.
  • Expert Witnesses: Doctors, psychologists, and other experts might analyze medical records, interpret testimony from witnesses, or explain concepts like undue influence.

Key Questions

If you are concerned about the validity of a will, consider these key questions:

  • Does the will meet legal requirements for proper signing and witnessing?
  • Are there inconsistencies or suspicious changes between different versions of the will?
  • Did the deceased have any medical conditions or medications that could have clouded their judgment?
  • Is there evidence that the deceased was pressured, manipulated, or isolated by someone who benefited from changes to their will?

Matters Involving the Interpretation or Construction of a Will or of Trust Documents

Sometimes, a probate dispute isn't about whether a will is valid, but rather about what it actually means. This can occur due to unclear language, outdated provisions, or even internal contradictions within the will or trust document, and thus the primary goal in resolving these disputes is to determine the deceased's true intentions despite any ambiguities in the document. For these purposes, the following evidence is particularly relevant: 

  • The Will/Trust Itself (and Prior Versions): A careful analysis may be needed to identify unclear wording or clauses that conflict with each other. Were there multiple versions of the document?
  • Financial Records: These can be especially helpful when the issue is about a specific bequest that's now unclear. For example, if the will states, "my stock portfolio," but the deceased owned multiple accounts, financial records can help establish which assets they intended to include.
  • Correspondence: Did the deceased leave any letters, emails, or even notes that explain their intentions for specific parts of their estate plan? These might be crucial in resolving ambiguities within the will or trust itself.

Key Questions

If you're facing a dispute over the construction of a will or trust, here are some key questions to consider:

  • Is there seemingly contradictory language within the will or trust itself?
  • Are there instructions that are now impossible to fulfill, or refer to assets that no longer exist?
  • Did the deceased express their intentions regarding specific bequests or instructions elsewhere (in other documents or letters)?

Fiduciary Disputes

Executors, administrators, and trustees are entrusted with a great deal of responsibility in managing a deceased person's estate. Unfortunately, disputes over their conduct are common in probate litigation. This often centers on claims of mismanagement, self-dealing, or violating their fiduciary duties, which include:

  • Acting in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries.
  • Managing assets prudently and responsibly.
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest or benefiting themselves at the estate's expense.
  • Keeping accurate records and providing information to beneficiaries.

When these duties are allegedly breached, a careful examination of evidence becomes vital.

  • Financial Records: Bank statements, property records, investment accounts – these are where most fiduciary misconduct leaves a trace. Unexplained withdrawals, transfers to the fiduciary's own accounts, or unusual purchases raise immediate concerns.
  • The Will or Trust: The powers and limitations of a fiduciary are outlined within the will or trust document. Did they act outside their authority, or fail to fulfill duties specified in the document itself?
  • Correspondence: Emails or letters can expose a fiduciary trying to conceal information from beneficiaries, pressuring others regarding the estate, or engaging in transactions that clearly benefit themselves rather than the estate.
  • Expert Witnesses: Expert Witnesses: Expert witnesses can be called upon to provide specialized knowledge and offer professional opinions relevant to the dispute. For example, accountants can analyze financial records, trace assets, and determine if proper accounting procedures were followed. Estate planning attorneys can testify as to whether the actions of the fiduciary were consistent with the terms of the will or trust, and in line with their legal obligations. Professional appraisers can be used to determine the fair market value of assets like real estate, businesses, or collectibles in connection with disputes alleging that a fiduciary sold off assets below their true value. 

Key Questions

If you are concerned about a fiduciary's conduct, consider these key questions:

  • Are estate assets being depleted without explanation?
  • Has the fiduciary benefited personally from managing the estate in ways that seem improper?
  • Did the fiduciary violate the terms of the will or trust?
  • Have requests for information about the estate been ignored or delayed?

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