While in most cases the estate administration process proceeds without complications, in some instances the process is fraught with drama and ultimately litigation occurs. Probate litigation occurs when there is a dispute during the probate or administration process that the parties cannot settle and must be settle in by the Probate Court judge. Because the goal of probate is to ensure that an estate is distributed in accordance to the wishes of the decedent as memorialized in their will, if any, and in accordance with Alabama law.
Common Causes of Probate Litigation
Of course, the various aspects of this case will depend on the unique factors of the claim. These cases most often emerge between fiduciaries and beneficiaries and can include conflicts, such as:
- Creditor claims. During the administration process creditors must submit claims during the claims period in order to get paid by the estate. The personal representative will only pay claims that are timely filed and substantiated. If a claim is denied, the creditor may initiate litigation in an attempt to get paid.
- Beneficiary disputes. Beneficiaries and heirs may get into disputes with each other or with the personal representative. Such disputes can be emotional and based on long family history. It may lead to litigation.
- Accountings. A personal representative is required to keep records of their actions and submit accountings to the court and to interesting parties when requested. Interested parties can object to information in an accounting, leading to litigation.
- Disputes between children and a surviving spouse. Disputes be children and the surviving spouse and not uncommon, especially if the surviving spouse is a step parent to the children. Such disputes can lead to will contests.
- Breach of fiduciary duty claims. A personal representative is a fiduciary. As such, they must perform their responsibilities with the utmost care. If there are allegations of negligence or malfeasance, they can be hauled into court to address those allegations. Note that in addition to the personal representative, other fiduciary involved in estate matters may include trustees and guardians
- Disputes related to other estate assets and documents. Issues regarding the transfer of assets through joint accounts, beneficiary designations, powers of attorney, payable on death provisions, and property owned jointly with right of survivorship may lead to litigation.
Consequences of Probate Litigation
Note that probate litigation generally results in a delay in the administration process. A judge will not move forward until disputes are resolved since many disputes impact who is entitled to distributions and the role of the personal representative. For example, if the dispute is a will contest the court cannot admit a will to probate until it is confident that it is legitimate. Depending on the complexity of the dispute and the length of the litigation process, probate litigation can cause a process that should take about 8-10 months take 12 months or more.
Probate litigation may also result in increased expense to the estate and decreased assets available for distribution. Expenses of litigation are often paid out of estate assets, including attorney’s fees.
If the litigation is a will contest, depending on the outcome of the litigation, there may be a change in those entitled to a distribution of the assets in the estate. For example, if the court determines that the will is invalid, the assets will be distributed according to intestate succession instead of to the beneficiaries listed int eh validated will.
Another consequence of probate litigation may be a change in fiduciary. If the litigation challenges the actions of the personal representative and the court finds that the personal representative violated their fiduciary duties, the court may remove the personal representative and appoint a successor. Another consequence is that the court may find that the fiduciary is personally responsible and required to reimburse to estate for losses suffered due to their negligent actions.