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What Happens in Estate Litigation?

Thu Feb 29, 2024 | Estate Litigation |

For people who are engaged in a will or trust dispute, the possibility of litigation can seem overwhelming and intimidating. One of the reasons is that estate litigation can seem like a “black box” where it is unclear what happens and what the outcomes are. Whether you are a beneficiary, a personal representative, or some other interested party, an estate litigation attorney can help you understand your options and help you get your dispute resolved. 

How Estate Litigation Happens

Litigation is a process by which parties seek the intervention of a court or other authority in order to resolve a dispute that the parties cannot resolve themselves. While the term can include alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or arbitration, estate disputes almost always wind up in court. This is important to understand because the court will then decide the case, sometimes in a “winner takes all” approach. In other words, once your lawyer has finished putting on your case, the outcome is in the hands of the judge or jury. 

Here are some of the most common disputes that lead to estate litigation: 

  • Disputes over the validity of the will or trust
  • Claims that the personal representative or trustee has breached their fiduciary duty
  • Disputes involving creditors’ claims against the estate
  • Claims alleging fraud or undue influence
  • Guardianship issues

As mentioned above, estate litigation occurs when these disputes arise and the parties are unable to resolve them. They may be unable to resolve them for a number of reasons beyond the personal conflicts that can be common in estate disputes. The estate documents may be unclear or contain inconsistencies. An heir may have been unexpectedly disinherited or treated unfairly. Whatever the reason may be, litigation may be the best option for resolving the dispute. An estate litigation attorney can review your case and explain your options. 

We Can’t Resolve Our Dispute. What Happens Next?

 The next step will depend on whether the dispute involves a trust or a will. If your dispute involves a will, you will need to proceed through the probate process. The probate process essentially involves filing the will and then administering it under the supervision of the probate court. Since you are already in court, you will not need to file a separate lawsuit, even though the dispute may be handled as a separate proceeding. In some ways, this can simplify the litigation process. 

The process is more complicated if it involves a trust. Trusts are administered outside of the probate process and without the supervision of a court. As a result, you will need to file a separate lawsuit if you want to challenge some aspect of the trust or how it is being administered. 

Can There Be Litigation if There Is No Will or Trust?

If the decedent died without a will or a trust, you still need to proceed through probate. The first step will be to have a personal representative appointed, which can be a source of dispute. Once the personal representative is appointed, the assets of the estate will be distributed according to Florida’s intestate succession laws. As a result, disputes over who receives estate assets are highly unlikely, but litigation can still arise over various other aspects of the process such as the following: 

  • Whether the personal representative is appropriately discharging their duties
  • Whether all heirs and creditors were properly notified
  • The identification and valuation of estate assets
  • The treatment of creditor claims      

As a result, if there is litigation, it will likely take place within the probate process. 

Is Settlement Still an Option if We Pursue Litigation? 

Conceivably, your dispute can be settled up until the court renders a decision. The likelihood of settlement, however, will depend upon a variety of factors. For example, the personal representative or trustee may be unable to authorize a settlement if it would violate the terms of the will or the trust. 

The reality is that settlement in an estate case can be more complex in other types of disputes because of the number of parties involved and the limitations of the estate planning documents. This is one of the reasons why you should talk to an estate litigation attorney early in the dispute – they can assess whether settlement is a viable option or whether litigation is the only way to get it resolved. 

Understand the Costs of Estate Litigation

Litigation is expensive and providing a general estimate is impossible. Instead, possible litigants need to consider the following: 

  • The person or persons initiating litigation will likely need to hire an attorney and will have to pay their legal fees out of their own pockets. 
  • The defendant or defendants in the claim will likely need to hire their own attorney to defend themselves and will have to pay for their legal fees. 
  • If either claim involves the personal representative or trustee, they will need to engage their own legal counsel. These legal fees will likely be paid by the estate. 
  • Attorney’s fees and costs may be awarded to the prevailing party, but that is within the court’s discretion. 

As a result, unless you are the trustee or personal representative, you need to be prepared to pay your legal fees upfront and with no guarantee of recovery. If you are in litigation against the trustee or personal representative, litigation could significantly deplete the assets of the estate. Potential litigants should, therefore, carefully consider whether litigation is in their best interests. An experienced estate litigation attorney can provide you with guidance on this issue so that you can make an informed decision. 

Talk to an Estate Litigation Attorney at Ellis Law Group Today

Filing a lawsuit is a big step in any dispute, especially in the context of an estate dispute. Whether you just want to understand your options or know that litigation is your only option, we can help. To speak with an estate litigation attorney who knows how to navigate these challenges, call us today at 561-910-7500 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.