Probate Disputes

Probate is the term commonly used to describe the court-supervised settling of the estate of a decedent. The first step in probate is to for the will to be submitted to the probate court. If the court determines that the will is valid and there are no objections, the court will admit the will to probate and appoint a personal representative. The next step is the administration process. During administration, the personal representative manages estate property, pays estate debt and expenses, and distributes estate property. However, during the process, there are sometimes disputes that must be resolved. Disputes often center on the validity of the will and the performance of the personal representative.

Will Contest

If an interested party believes that the will that was submitted to the court is invalid, they can object to it and present evidence of the will’s invalidity. Generally, interested parties include beneficiaries named in the will, beneficiaries named in a prior will, and legal heirs. If the court determines that the will is invalid, it will not allow it to be probated. Instead, unless a valid will is produced, the court will determine the decedent to be intestate and proceed accordingly. The following are grounds for invalidating a will:

  • Incompetency. Under Ohio law, a will cannot be made by just anyone. A testator must have legal capacity to do so. This means that they must be at least 18 years old, they must be of sound mind, and they must not be under a restraint. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2107.02. Objections based on a lack of competency general focus on the “sound mind” requirement. If, for example, the testator was suffering from dementia and did not understand what they were doing when they executed the will, the will would not be valid.
  • Duress. One of the foundations of a will is that it reflects the wishes of the testator. If the testator was forced to make the will, it would be invalid. While duress can refer to actual physical force, it can also refer to threats.
  • Undue influence. Undue influence occurs when someone in a position of trust with a vulnerable testator manipulates the testator into executing a will that they would not have otherwise executed. Typically, the will includes unexpected terms such as disinheriting those had previously been part of the testator’s estate plan.
  • Later valid will. If the testator executed a will after the version that was submitted to the court, the later will would have revoked the prior will. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2107.33

Fiduciary Litigation

Disputes during the administration process sometimes center on the personal representative. The personal representative is a fiduciary and is responsible for caring for the estate during administration. This means that the personal representative must not only follow the terms of the will and follow orders of the court, the personal representative must also act responsibly and with best interests of the estate in mind.

If an interested party such as a beneficiary or heir believes that the fiduciary has breach their duty, they have the right to bring their concerns to the probate court judge. Examples of actions of the personal representative that may lead to fiduciary litigation include:

  • Self-dealing. The personal representative is not supposed to take actions on behalf the estate and with estate assets that would inure to their own personal benefit without first getting approval from the court. For example, it would be inappropriate for the personal representative purchase property from the estate or to sell property to a friend at a favorable price.
  • Failing to secure estate property. During the administration process, the personal representative must make sure estate property is secure and that steps are taken to make sure that its value does not diminish. For example, real should be insured and have appropriate locks or security systems.
  • Discrepancies in accounting. The personal representative is required to submit accountings to the court. Interested parties are also entitled to see them. If an interested party finds discrepancies, they can challenge the accounting in court.

Impact of Probate Disputes

A probate dispute can have a significant impact on the administration process. Depending on the nature of the dispute, it can result in the decedent being declared intestate. It can also result in the removal of the personal representative, guardian, trustee, or other fiduciary. Regardless of the nature of the dispute, a lengthy dispute will undoubtedly delay probate and will be costly to the litigants.

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