In New York a probate dispute is a conflict that occurs during the estate administration process. There are typically several parties involved in probate proceedings who have different, sometimes conflicting interests. Given conflicting interests coupled with a range of emotions associated with the death of a loved one, it is not surprising that the process can become adversarial at times resulting in litigation. Disputes frequently occur between beneficiaries or heirs regarding the validity of the will, the performance of a fiduciary, spousal rights to inherit under EPTL § 5-1.1-A, or creditor’s claims. A probate dispute can have a profound impact on the administration process, causing significant delays and added expense related to the costs to litigate.
Will contest in New York
A will contest is an objection to the validity of a will. The goal of the objectant is to prevent the will from being probated. Keep in mind that in New York to initiate a will contest you must be an interested party such a beneficiary, beneficiary of a prior will, or an heir. SCPA § 1410. In addition, there is a fairly short time frame for objecting to a will. When appearing at the hearing, the objection must be submitted in writing and it must include valid reasons for the objection. Grounds for a will contest include:
- Lack of testamentary capacity. New York law requires that a testator must have been mentally competent when they executed their will. Evidence to the contrary would be grounds for a will contest.
- Undue influence. Undue influence occurs when someone improperly pressures the testator to make a will they would not have otherwise made. To establish undue influence the objectant must show motive, opportunity, and the actual exercise of improper influence.
- Improper execution. A will can be contested if it was not properly executed. Under New York law, the testator must sign the will at the end, and the signing of the will must be witnessed by at least 2 people.
- Duress. If the testator was forced to make a will by actual violence or by threats, the will would not be valid. A will must be created out of free will.
Successful will contests can result in a prior or later valid will being probated instead or may result in the decedent being declared intestate. If that happens, the estate assets will be distributed to the decedent’s heirs based on New York’s law of intestate succession.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
A personal representative is a fiduciary with respect to the estate. As a fiduciary, a personal representative is required to perform their responsibilities with the utmost care, loyalty, and honesty, with the best interests of the estate in mind. If an interested party believes that the actions of the personal representative are improper, they can challenge the personal representative in court. Common reasons for fiduciary litigation include:
- Improper investment of estate assets
- Illegal self-dealing
- Irregularities in the accounting
- Wasting estate assets
If the fiduciary is found to have breached their duty as a fiduciary, then the Surrogate’s Court may suspend them. They may also require the fiduciary to reimburse the estate for losses suffered as a result of the fiduciary’s improper actions.
Elective Share Disputes
In New York married persons are entitled to receive a portion of their spouse’s estate regardless of what the decedent included in their will. The surviving spouse can choose to take an “elective share” of the greater of (i) $50,000 or, if the capital value of the net estate is less than $50,000, such capital value, or (ii) 1/3 of the net estate. The spouse must decide within 6 months of when the personal representative was appointed. EPTL 5-1.1-A. Disputes related to the elective may include whether it was properly made or its amount.
Disputes With Creditors
In New York creditors are required to file claims against an estate within 7 months of when the personal representative was appointed. To avoid personal liability, the personal representative must wait until the claims period ends before distributing assets. The personal representative has 90 days to either accept or reject the claim. If the claim is rejected, then the creditor can file a petition with the Surrogate’s Court seeking a determination as to the validity of the claim. SCPA § 1809.