Most people have done their due diligence with estate planning and expect that there will be few, if any, claims against the estate in terms of disputes and conflicts. Unfortunately, however, probate court litigation can and does happen. In Alaska, the Superior Court serves as the probate court and has jurisdiction over estate matters. AK ST § 13.06.050(8). In Alaska, estate litigation is a broad term that incorporates many different types of disputes including disputes related to estates of decedents, construction of wills and determination of heirs and successors of decedents, estates of protected persons, protection of minors and incapacitated persons, and trusts. AK ST § 13.06.065. Fundamentally, the goal of estate litigation is to protect the rights and interests of beneficiaries and heirs and to uphold the wishes of those who have passed away.
Initiating Estate Litigation
There are many types of estate litigation and there may be many different people who have concerns related to different aspects of the probate and estate administration process. Whether it is a will contest, a claim against the estate, a dispute with a fiduciary, or any other type of dispute, to initiate estate litigation a petition must be filed in the appropriate Alaska court and the person filing the petition must have standing to do so.
When someone passes away, the probate case must be opened by filing a petition at the Superior Court in the judicial a district where the decedent lived at the time of their death. Thus, the same Superior Court would have jurisdiction over disputes that develop.
In addition, only those with standing have the legal right to initiate estate litigation. Standing means that the person has a judiciable interest in the case. This is limited to beneficiaries of the will, intestate heirs, and in some instances, creditors.
Common Reasons for Alaska Estate Litigation
Particularly when loved ones are grieving over the loss of a loved one, disputes can develop over almost anything. However, when it comes to disputes that turn into full blown litigation before a Superior Court judge, the common reason include:
- Will contest. A will contest occurs when an interested party challenges the validity of a will submitted to the court for probate. The basis for will challenges include, under influence, lack of mental capacity, and undue execution. Undue influence means that someone illegally influenced the testator to make a will that they would not have otherwise made. Lack oc mental capacity means that the testator was not of sound mind when they executed the will. Lack of due execution means that the will was not executed in the manner required by Alaska law such as not having the appropriate number of witnesses.
- Will construction suits. Litigation may also be based on who to interpret specific terms of the will. If a term is vague or subject to different, competing interpretation, the court may have to step in and resolve the conflict.
- Creditors’ claims. During the administration process, creditors have the right to submit claims and demand payment. If a claim is rejected, the creditor may sue the estate.
- Disputes with the personal representative. The personal representative is the person appointed by the court to manage the decedent’s estate during the administration process. Other terms for personal representative include executor and administrator. If an interested party objects to the appointment or has issues with how the personal representative has managed the estate, they can initiate litigation to challenge the personal representative.
In addition to disputes related to the will or estate administration process, other types of estate-related litigation may involve guardianships or trusts. For example, the appointment of a guardian or the action of a guardian may be challenged. With respect to a trust, the litigation may involve a trust modification, breach of fiduciary duty actions, or trust termination.