Probate is a legal process during which a decedent’s will is validated and their estate is settled. In Michigan, the Probate Court has jurisdiction over estate matters. This includes not only cases involving the estates deceased persons, but also trusts, protection of minors and incapacitated adults. Even though the Probate Court has jurisdiction, a personal representative appointed by the court is responsible for day-to-day management of the process.
Typically, the job of the personal representative is limited to inventorying and managing the estate property, paying estate debt and expenses, and distributing estate assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs. However, sometimes the process becomes contentious, and the personal representative must address disputes. While there are many reasons that probate disputes may develop during the administration process, common types of probate disputes handed by Michigan probate courts include will contests and fiduciary litigation. Probate disputes must be resolved in order for the estate administration process to move forward.
Michigan Will Contest
A will contest occurs when someone who is considered an “interested party” objects to the will that was submitted to the court. In other words, the objectant does not believe that the will is authentic. In Michigan, interested parties include anyone who has an immediate financial interest in the proceeding. For example, the decedent’s next of kin would be considered interested parties because they stand to inherit in the absence of a will. Anyone who is named in the will as a beneficiary would also be deemed an interested party, even if they are not family members, because they stand to lose financially if the will is invalidated.
Note that for a court to listen to arguments in a will contest, the objectant must state legal grounds for the will contest. The reason for the objecting to the will must be more than a feeling that the will is invalid or anger for being left out of the will.
The legal grounds for objecting to a will include:
- Improper execution. Like all jurisdictions, Michigan has specific rules related to how the will is executed that must be followed in order for a will to be valid. For example, the will must be signed by the testator and must be witnessed by at least 2 people.
- Lack of testamentary capacity. For a will to be valid, at the time it was executed the testator must have had legal capacity to do so. This means that the testator must have been at least 18 years old and must have been mentally sound. Mich. Comp. Laws § 700.2501
- Undue influence. For a will to be valid, the testator must not have been manipulated into executing it.
- Duress. A will is valid only if the testator made it out of their own free will. If they were physically or emotionally forced to make the will, it would not be valid.
If the court determines that the will is not valid, the court will proceed as if that will did not exist. This may mean that a prior, valid will would be probated. Or, it may mean that the decedent would be considered intestate and Michigan’s law of intestate succession would apply.
Note that under Michigan law an interested party who contests a will will not be penalized for doing so as long as there was probable cause for initiating the will contest. Mich. Comp. Laws § 700.2518
Fiduciary Litigation in Michigan
A fiduciary is a person or entity that acts on behalf of someone else. They are legally required to put the interests of that other person or entity ahead of their own and to act in a trustworthy manner. Failure to do so may result in suspension or removal. It may even result in financial liability or criminal charges. Mich. Comp. Laws § 700.3712
With respect to the estate of a decedent, the personal representative is a fiduciary. The personal representative acts on behalf of the estate. If an interested party such as a beneficiary believes that the personal representative has breached their duty as fiduciary, they can challenge the personal representative by initiating fiduciary litigation. They can file a temporary restraining order stopping the personal representative from performing a specified act of administration, disbursement, or distribution. An interested person can also petition the court to remove a personal representative for cause.
Note that in addition to the personal representative, there may be other fiduciaries involved in an estate administration process such as guardians or trustees.
Expenses of Michigan Probate Litigation
If there is a dispute, the personal representative will incur expenses in the process. These expenses will be paid out of estate assets as long as the personal representative proceeds in good faith. Mich. Comp. Laws § 700.3720