Other than an ugly divorce, a Will contest or other estate dispute can do more damage to family relationships that any other single event. The worst legal, emotional, and often financial nightmares begin when someone in a family contests a Will--that is, they seek the court's intervention to modify or set aside a loved one's Will or Trust. What they do not see going on is the emotional chaos that invariably results if litigation is pursued. Estate disputes can last for years. Who wins in these cases? Usually, no one but the lawyers.
Is there a better alternative? While a lawsuit over a loved one's estate may be unavoidable, there are often better ways to resolve the dispute than turning the matter into litigation. Mediation is one such alternative. It is an opportunity to get the parties together before taking the matter to court, thereby saving money, time, and emotional scars that may never heal.
There are some warning signs that can help you identify whether an estate is going to be difficult to administer:
(1) SECOND MARRIAGE SITUATIONS. These often lead to litigation when there are children from prior marriages, particularly where bad or no estate planning may result in everything being left to the surviving spouse. Regardless of whether or not the new marriage lasted longer than the marriage that produced the children, the children often lose. The surviving stepparent can easily disinherit the deceased's children once they have control of the estate.
(2) IF A CHILD HAS BEEN DISINHERITED. In a lot of states, there is little protection for disinherited children. If properly drafted, a Will can easily disinherit a child. Regardless, when someone has been intentionally disinherited, he or she will often contest the Will.
(3) WHEN ONE CHILD IS FAVORED OVER ANOTHER IN A WILL. Disparate treatment of children is a situation where the act, in and of itself, is not grounds for a successful Will contest, but the emotions involved often lead to litigation. All too often feelings of sibling rivalry do not go away in adulthood.
(4) WHEN A NEIGHBOR, FRIEND, OR DISTANT RELATIVE STARTS INFLUENCING AN ELDERLY PARENT. Sometimes the motives are not those of a good Samaritan, but are more about abject greed. If an estate plan has recently been altered to favor someone other than the "natural objects of the parents' bounty," an estate dispute is likely to follow.
(5) IF THE PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE IS DRAGGING HIS OR HER FEET. Years ago, we were involved in one probate where the estate was left open with assets undistributed to beneficiaries for 11 years. Where substantial delays occur, heirs get impatient and suspicious. Court intervention may be their first step in bringing closure and resolution.
If any of these situations seem familiar, then you or someone you know is probably gearing up for a lengthy, protracted Will contest. Before taking those next steps, however, talk to a lawyer who not is not only experienced in estate litigation, but also who has experience using alternative dispute resolution techniques. Find out what their track record is in settling estate disputes before protracted litigation has consumed the entire estate. We regularly have clients who came to us looking for legal recourse only to learn that they are facing legal proceedings that could take years to resolve if the family members they intend to litigate against become stubborn or the fires of their dispute are fueled by litigious counsel. Realizing they either may not have the resources to follow through with a process that will only wreak havoc on relationships that are already strained or do not have the inclination for a lengthy, emotional battle, they agree to mediation.
It is not easy to sit in a room with someone with whom there is emotional conflict, but what most people do not realize is that the alternative course--protracted litigation--is more painful. A good lawyer can help all parties through the process and find ways to settle the estate before it is gone. After all, most people do not really want to leave their legacy to the lawyers.
If you, a friend, family member, neighbor, or coworker are involved in an estate dispute and have questions about how we can be of service, give us a call at 253.858.5434. We proudly serve clients throughout Washington and Idaho and are available to meet in person, by phone, or via Skype or FaceTime.