Probate Disputes

When someone passes away their estate must go through a legal process referred to as probate or estate administration. In Wyoming, district courts have jurisdiction over probate matters. If a dispute develops during the process, it can lead to probate litigation in front of a probate court judge. There are many issues that can form the basis of probate litigation including will contests, issues related to fiduciaries, will constructions, disputes over the spouse’s elective share, and disagreements with claimants.

Will Contest

A will contest is formal challenge to the validity of a will that has been admitted to probate. Once a will is accepted by the probate court judge, an interested party has the right to file an objection asking the court to revoke probate. Wy. Stat. § 2-6-301. Interested parties generally include beneficiaries, beneficiaries to a prior will and intestate heirs. The objection must state the reasons for the objection.

Legal grounds for a will challenge include improper execution, lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraud, and duress. If the court concludes that the will is not valid, it will revoke probate. If there is a prior valid will, the court will probate it. Otherwise, the estate will be intestate, and Wyoming’s law of intestate succession will apply. Wy. Stat. § 2-4-101.

Note that in Wyoming no contest clauses are upheld. Thus, if a will has a clause that disinherits a beneficiary who challenges the will, the court will enforce it. EGW and AW v. First Federal Savings Bank of Sheridan, 413 P.3d 106 (Wyo. 2018)

Fiduciary Litigation

Disputes relating to a fiduciary is another type of probate dispute that can lead to litigation. A fiduciary is a person who has the authority and the obligation to act for another person under circumstances that require total trust, good faith, and honesty. With respect to a probate or estate matter, fiduciaries may include the personal representative or estate administrator, attorney, trustee, accountant, or guardian.

Common estate litigation issues that involve fiduciaries include breach of fiduciary duty, objection to the final accounting, removal of fiduciary due to malfeasance or ineligibility, contested guardianships, and disputing fiduciary fees.

Will Construction

While the terms of a will are generally binding, if the wording in a will is open to conflicting interpretations, the parties may take the issue to court and ask the judge to settle the ambiguity.

Spouse’s Elective Share

Wyoming law provides that a surviving spouse can claim a right to receive an “elective share” of the deceased spouse’s probate estate. Wy. Stat. § 2-5-101. The elective share is either ½ or ¼ of the decedent’s estate, depending on whether the surviving spouse is the parent of any children of the decedent. The deadline for the surviving spouse to make the election is the later of within 3 months of when the will was admitted to probate or within 30 days of being advised of the right of election. Wy. Stat. § 2-5-105

If the personal representative refuses to recognize the spouse’s elective share or if the surviving spouse demands an improper elective share, the dispute can lead to litigation.

Creditor’s Claims

Creditors must file claims against the estate within a timeframe that is based on when the notice was served or published. The personal representative is required to pay the estate’s timely filed, valid debts to the extent there are assets in the estate available to pay them. If the personal representative determines that a claimant has not substantiated a claim, they have the obligation to refuse to pay it.

The claimant, however, also has the right to sue the estate for payment. Initiating probate litigation will give the claimant another opportunity to prove that the debt is valid and demand payment.

Impact of Probate Disputes

The impact of probate disputes on an estate can be significant regardless of whether or not the petitioner is successful. Any type of litigation will likely cause a delay in the administration process and the distribution of an estate’s assets. In Wyoming the administration process typically takes up to a year. Prolonged litigation will delay when the estate can be closed and assets distributed.

In addition, probate litigation can be costly to the estate. The court may require that expenses related to initiating or defending litigation be paid out estate assets. The result is fewer assets to distribute to beneficiaries and heirs.

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