One of the difficult aspects of the probate process is when disagreements occur. Probate is the process that is legally required to settle the estate of decedent. In Vermont, the process is managed by a court appointed personal representative under the jurisdiction of the probate division of the Superior Court. Because probate is often a complicated legal process that has financial ramifications, during the process there are a variety of issues that can lead to disputes among the parties involved. If those disputes cannot be settled by the parties outside of court through negotiation or mediation, then the issues must be settled by the probate court.
Challenges to the validity of the will are among the most common types of probate disputes. When a will is submitted to the probate division, beneficiaries and heirs receive notification. This can set the stage for someone who believes that the will is invalid to file a formal challenge to it.
To contest a will, there are 2 requirements. First, the person contesting the will must have standing. Only someone such as a beneficiary, a beneficiary of a prior will, or an intestate heir have the legal standing to contest a will. Second, the challenge must be based on legal grounds. Legal grounds include:
- Incompetent testator. One of the requirements for making a valid will is that the testator must be of “sound mind” at the time that they executed the will. 14 V.S.A. § 1.
- Improper execution. The formalities of execution must have been followed including that the will must be writing, it must be signed by the testator, and it must also be signed by at least 2 credible witnesses. 14 V.S.A. § 5
- Duress. The testator was forced to create the will by the use of physical violence or threats.
- Undue influence. The testator was manipulated by someone to make certain provisions in the will.
If a will contest is successful, the court will revoke probate and either probate a prior or later valid will, or it will distribute estate assets based on the Vermont’s law of intestate succession. 14 V.S.A. § 301 et seq.
Another type of dispute concerning a will is interpreting its terms. If the terms of a will are so unclear that they are open to multiple conflicting interpretations, the parties may initiate litigation resulting in the court having to determine the meaning of the words in the will.
When asked to interpret the terms of a will, the court is required to apply the “four corners” rule and “and give effect to its language read in the light of the relation of the parties concerned and the circumstances attending its execution.” In re Estate of Holbrook, 166 A.3d 595 (2017) If the terms are ambiguous, the court is allowed to look beyond the four corners of the will and consider extrinsic evidence.
Another common type of probate dispute involves issues related to the fiduciary. Probate litigation can be based on disputes involving the personal representative, trustee, guardian, attorney, or another fiduciary involved with the estate. If, for example, a beneficiary feels that the personal representative is wasting estate assets, self-dealing, or is being otherwise negligent with managing estate assets, the beneficiary can challenge the personal representative’s actions in court.
If a fiduciary is found to have breached their duty, the potential remedy ranges from being warned, to financial consequences, to being removed.
Impact of Probate Disputes
Litigation during probate can have an impact on the process in a variety of ways, depending on the type of litigation and its outcome. For example, if a will contest is successful, there may be a significant change as to who is entitled to receive the decedent’s assets, especially if the invalidated will included non-relatives as beneficiaries.
If the result of the dispute is that the personal representative is found to have breached their fiduciary duty, then the result may be that the fiduciary is replaced or that the fiduciary is personally liable to the estate for losses that resulted from their actions.
Regardless of the type of dispute, probate litigation will undoubtedly extend the probate process and may add additional expenses that the estate may be required to pay.