In Missouri, estate administration can be a very litigious process. Let’s face it, the death of a loved one is difficult and can bring up a range of emotions that are based on complicated family histories. Furthermore, Missouri estate law is detailed, and the process of estate administration can be long and frustrating. As a result, the parties may find that their interests conflict and may also find it difficult to resolve their differences without the involvement of the Circuit Court. In Missouri, the Circuit Court has jurisdiction over estate matters. When the court gets involved and litigation is required, the entire process may be impacted. The common reasons for probate litigation include challenging the validity of the will, disputes with fiduciaries, denied creditor’s claims, and disputes related to the elective share under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 474.160.
Missouri Will Contest
The term “probate” means prove. When a decedent’s will is filed with the probate court (the Circuit Court), the petitioner must also file a petition called Application for Letters Testamentary requesting that the court admit the will to probate. The petition asks the court to review the will and sign off on it. Signing off on it would mean that the court issued an order that the will is valid and that the decedent’s estate should be administered and asset distribution made based on the terms of that will.
However, if someone who is a party to the proceeding does not agree that the will is valid, that person can file an objection and initiate a will contest. Doing so will suspend the process until the court sorts out the evidence and comes to a conclusion about the validity of the will.
With a will contest, there are only a few reasons that a court will invalidate a will including: improper execution, undue influence, duress, mental incapacity, fraud, and revocation. The result of a successful will contest is that the court will find that the will is invalid and deny probate. As a result, Missouri’s law of intestate succession would apply and the decedent’s legal heirs would inherit. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 474.010. Under intestate succession, the decedent’s surviving spouse and/or children are the first in line to inherit followed by parents and siblings. If there is another will that is valid, the court will probate that will.
Fiduciary Litigation in Missouri
The personal representative (executor) can be the focus of probate disputes. The personal representative is the fiduciary appointed by the court to care for the tasks necessary to settle the decedent’s estate. They are required to ensure that the decedent’s debts and the expenses of administration are paid. They must also protect and manage the property that is in the estate. Finally, with the permission of the court, they are required to distribute estate assets.
Because the fiduciary is entrusted to care for assets that belong to others, by law they are held to a high standard of care. If they fail to meet this high standard of care and as a result the estate suffers damage, they can be sued for breach of fiduciary duty. The result may be removal, fines, and restitution.
Spouse’s Elective Share in Missouri
Missouri law protects spouses from being disinherited. Regardless of what a will says or what the spouse wants, upon death, they cannot purposely leave their spouse penniless by leaving them out of the will or leaving them a small share of a significant estate. That law requires that a surviving spouse have the choice of accepting whatever their deceased spouse let them in the will or choose a statutory amount. If, for example, the will left the surviving spouse with very little of a substantial estate, the spouse would likely choose to take the statutory elective amount, which is 1/3 of the estate if the decedent had children and 1/2 of the estate if there are no surviving descendants. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 474.160
Impact of Probate Disputes in Missouri
While some probate disputes are avoidable, many are not. In fact, they are a necessary part of the determining the rights of the parties involved and to ensuring the integrity of the proceedings. However, they can also have a significant impact on the outcome of the proceedings. Furthermore, litigation will slow the process and will result in added expense to the estate.