Probate is often viewed as a proceeding during which a decedent’s property is distributed based on the terms of the will. In reality there is a lot more to the process of probate and estate administration and it can involve many different parties including beneficiaries, heirs, creditors, and fiduciaries. Because of the legalities involved and the many parties involved, it is not unusual for disputes to develop during the process. In Oklahoma, the District Court has jurisdiction over probate matters and adjudicates probate disputes. Probate disputes can have a significant impact on a probate proceeding.
One of the most common types of probate disputes are disagreements over whether the will should be probated. Typically such disputes occur when a family member who expected to receive an inheritance does not. Or, they occur when someone who is viewed as a “stranger” ends up inheriting a significant part of the estate. When someone who has a legal interest in the probate matter does not believe the will should be probated, they can initiate a will contest in an effort to have it invalidated. Under Oklahoma law, reasons for contesting a will include:
- Incompetency. In order to make a will in Oklahoma, the testator must have been mentally competent at the time that they made the will. Evidence of incompetency would invalidate the will.
- Duress. If the testator was forced to make the will by use of violence or by threats, the testator would not have made it out of their own free will. The will would not be invalid.
- Fraud. If the will was forged, or if someone gave the testator false information in order to persuade the testator to execute a will that is “unnatural” and not one that they would have made under any other circumstances, the will would be fraudulent and invalid.
- Undue influence. If a person who was in a position of trust with respect to a vulnerable testator used that position to manipulate the testator into making a will that the testator would not otherwise have made, the will would be invalid.
- Later valid will. If the will that was submitted has been revoked by the execution of a later will, then the older will would be invalid.
58 OK Stat §58-61
The personal representative is a fiduciary with respect to an estate. They have access to all probate property and the authority to make transactions and other decisions related to estate property. Their actions impact the health of the estate and the property that will eventually be transferred to beneficiaries and heirs. As a result, personal representatives are expected to do their jobs with the utmost care and with the interests of the estate in mind. Failure to do so may result in a lawsuit by the beneficiaries or heirs.
Examples of actions that may lead to fiduciary litigation include:
- Making poor investment choices
- Showing favoritism to a certain beneficiaries or heirs
- Failing to secure estate property
- Failing to follow an order of the court
In order to receive payment, creditors of the estate must submit claims during the claims period. If the personal representative rejects a claim, the claimant can bring a lawsuit to present evidence as to validity of the claim and why they should be paid. The lawsuit must be filed within 45 days after the claim was rejected, otherwise the claim is forever barred. 58 OK Stat §58339. Note that neither the personal representative nor the court will allow claims that are barred by the statute of limitations.
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 another fiduciary. Regardless of the nature of the dispute, a lengthy dispute will undoubtedly delay probate and will be costly to the litigants.