When is the Right Time to Hire a Lawyer in an Estate Dispute?

Fri Apr 28, 2023 | Estate Litigation |

Estate disputes can be incredibly delicate situations. Many people are reluctant to engage a lawyer too quickly for fear of poisoning the well and foreclosing any amicable resolution. On the other hand, valuable assets can be lost or beneficiaries and others can lose their rights if they wait too long. The reality is that you should speak with a lawyer sooner rather than later – the right estate litigation attorney will know when is the right time to step into the dispute and protect your rights. 

Is The Dispute Over a Will or a Trust?

Wills and trusts are very different estate planning vehicles that confer different rights and have different mechanisms for resolving disputes. Wills have specific deadlines for pursuing claims while the deadlines for pursuing a dispute under a trust can be more difficult to ascertain. 

Will Disputes

Wills must go through an administrative process known as probate. The will is filed with the court, a personal representative is appointed, and the administration of the estate is supervised by a judge. The process involves notifying all of the heirs and beneficiaries, inventorying all estate assets, and eventually, filing an accounting with the court that details how assets were distributed along with all claims and expenses that were paid.  

There are a few different reasons why an heir or beneficiary may pursue a probate dispute

  • They believe the will was improperly executed and is therefore invalid
  • They believe the will was a product of undue influence
  • They believe that the decedent lacked the capacity to understand the contents of their will when it was drafted
  • They believe that the will is fraudulent

Whatever the basis for their dispute, they generally have 90 days to file their dispute with the court. However, if they received formal notice that the will was being submitted to probate, they may have as little as 20 days to file their dispute. 

The best thing to do is speak to an estate litigation attorney as soon as you believe you may have a claim, even if the will has not yet been admitted to probate. The more time your lawyer has to prepare, the better the chance that you will be able to obtain a favorable result. Perhaps more importantly, they can walk you through the probable outcomes of your claim, allowing you to make an informed decision as to whether you should proceed. 

Trust Disputes

One of the main reasons people create trusts is to avoid the probate process. As a result, trust disputes are more complicated than will disputes because the administration of the trust does not require the supervision of a court. However, trusts can raise the same types of disputes as wills but with less clarity as to the rights of those who may have a claim. 

With will disputes, filing the will with the probate court is the event that usually triggers disputes to move forward. There is no such single event with the administration of a trust. Unfortunately, this does not mean that you can challenge the trust or how it’s being administered at any time you may choose – there may be statutes of limitations involved that cut off your rights when they expire. To further complicate matters, determining which statute of limitations applies to your claim can be very complicated. In some cases, you may have only six months to pursue your claim, while you may have up to four years in other situations. The nature of the dispute will play a role in determining how long you have to pursue your claim – contesting the validity of the trust versus contesting action taken by the trustee, for example.  

As a result, potential claimants need to trust their instincts and seek legal counsel as soon as they suspect something isn’t right. 

Hiring a Lawyer Does Not Mean Immediate Litigation

It is helpful to remember that hiring a lawyer does not mean that you will immediately be filing suit. While that may be your best option in some cases, they can also work with you in other ways: 

  • They can review your case and assess your claim. Sometimes a will or trust can be unfair but perfectly legal. A candid assessment of the validity of your claim will help you avoid wasting time and money on unnecessary litigation. Perhaps more importantly, it can help you avoid damaging valuable family relationships. 
  • They can help you resolve your dispute without litigation. An experienced estate litigation attorney can also help negotiate an outcome that is satisfactory to all parties while avoiding the expense of litigation. However, should negotiations fail, they will then be prepared to move forward with your claim.  

If you choose to meet with a lawyer, you should ask them whether they think litigation can be avoided and what they anticipate the timeline moving forward will look like. This can help you decide whether or not you want to move forward with your claim. 

Consulting with a Lawyer Is Always Confidential

Another thing that claimants should remember is that meeting with a lawyer is confidential. The other parties to the estate do not need to know that you met with a lawyer and therefore do not need to jump to any conclusions about your intentions. 

Seek Counsel if Lawyers Are Already Involved

If another party or parties are pursuing claims against the estate, we recommend that you seek counsel immediately. Any claims brought against the estate – whether based on the validity of the will or trust or how the estate is being disposed of – can have a significant impact on your interests. An experienced estate litigation attorney can discuss with you whether you need to respond to the dispute or otherwise assert your rights. 

Contact a Skilled Estate Litigation Attorney at Ellis Law Group Today

At Ellis Law Group, we help our clients navigate both the family dynamics and the legal realities of their estate disputes. From modest estates to sophisticated family trusts, we can help you understand your options. Call us today at 561-910-7500 or contact us online to schedule an appointment to discuss your case.