Probate Disputes

In Minnesota, when someone passes away, their estate must go through an administration process before their assets can be distributed to their beneficiaries or heirs. The District Court has jurisdiction over estate matters and a personal representative appointed by the court manages the process. If the decedent left a will, the process begins with the will being submitted to the court along with a petition. MN Stat § 524.3-102. While the steps in the Minnesota administration process are generally the same for each estate, in some instances disputes develop causing the process to become complicated. Disputes commonly center on challenges to the legitimacy of the will, challenges to actions of the personal representative, and challenges over the right to inherit.

Will Challenges in Minnesota

A will is a legally enforceable document in which the testator spells out what is to happen to their property upon their death. Because of the importance of a will and its legal and financial ramifications, there are statutory safeguards to ensure that wills that are probated are authentic and reflect the true wishes of the testator. If a relative or other person who has a legal interest in the estate believes that the will is not authentic, they have the right to challenge it by filing an objection to probate. This is called a will contest. While there may be several reasons to believe a will is not authentic, there are only a few legal grounds for a will contest:

  • Improper execution. To prevent fraudulent wills from being probated, a will must be executed with specific formalities. For example, the will must be in writing, it must be signed by the testator or by someone else at the director of the testator, and it must be signed by at least two witnesses. Failure to properly execute a will may be grounds for invalidating a will. MN Stat § 524.2-502.
  • Lack of testamentary capacity. Not every person has the legal capacity to make a will. Under Minnesota law, to make a valid will, the testator must be at least 18 years old and must be of “sound mind.” If an objectant believes that at the time the testator executed the will they suffered from a mental incapacity such that they did not understand the meaning of the making a will, they would have grounds for the will contest. MN Stat § 524.2-501.
  • Undue influence. A will would not be valid if the testator was illegally manipulated to execute it. This may happen where the testator was vulnerable due to age, illness, or isolation, and someone takes advantage of the situation and manipulates the testator into making a will that is favorable to the manipulator and otherwise “unnatural.”
  • Duress. A will would not be valid if the testator was physically or psychologically forced to execute it.
  • Will revoked. A revoked will is invalid. There are several ways to revoke a will, including executing a new will or burning, tearing, or otherwise destroying the will. MN Stat § 524.2-507

Note that to discourage will contests, testators may include a “no contest” clause in their will. A no contest clause penalizes beneficiaries who challenge the will by disinheriting them or by reducing their inheritance if the challenge fails. While some jurisdictions do not enforce no contest clauses, under Minnesota law, no contest clauses are enforceable unless there is probable cause of the challenge. MN Stat § 524.2-517.

Fiduciary Litigation

Another type of probate disputes centers on actions of fiduciaries, such as the personal representative, guardian, or trustee. If an interested party is not happy with how a fiduciary is performing their duties, they have the right to challenge them in court. Common reasons for fiduciary litigation include:

  • Disagreement over appointment of personal representative or guardian
  • Objection to the personal representative’s accounting
  • Accusations of self-dealing or improper investment of estate assets

Challenges to the Right to Inherit

Disputes can develop over the right to inherit. This is more likely to occur with an intestate estate. The law of intestate succession determines who has the right to inherit. However, particularly if the decedent did not have a surviving spouse or children, the identity of the decedent’s next of kin may be unclear. The court may require a kinship hearing to determine who is legally entitled to inherit.

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