The Dangerous Dynamics of Estate Litigation
Travis Graham is a partner at Gentry Locke, where he practices estate, commercial, and personal injury litigation.
It is usually possible to avoid most legal difficulties following a loved one’s death through open discussions with family members, sound advice, and prior planning. But not always. And when legal problems do arise, the emotional and financial toll can be devastating. Legal battles following the death of a family member can destroy families and futures, and prevent closure for months or years. Unfortunately, certain aspects of estate planning and administration almost seem to invite controversy.Estates operate largely on the honor system, while human beings often behave badly during times of stress or when tempted. Conflicts concerning money and property can bring out the worst in people.
But, these situations are not hopeless. The law provides a system of remedies designed to combat unfairness, overreaching, fraud, and outright theft during the final years of a person’s life and the administration of his or her estate. The key to seeking these remedies and resolving conflict is a timely consultation with an attorney who practices in the area of estate litigation. In fact, if suspicious circumstances appear or if it seems that conflict is inevitable, it is wise to consult an attorney even before a problem develops.
While will contests are probably the most common form of dispute, disagreements can take many forms. Suspicious transfers before an ailing loved one passes away, unexplained or self-serving actions on the part of a caretaker, unexpected changes to wills and trusts, wills that appear just before a person passes away, changes to life insurance policies, bank accounts, or retirement plans, and the sale or disappearance of property are a few of the more common reasons to seek legal advice. Sometimes just hiring a lawyer is enough, and the problems evaporate in the face of a thorough investigation–either because it turns out that no one was misbehaving, or because the misbehaving party thinks better of it.
Because estate disputes are usually between family members, it is sometimes the case that no one wants to be the first to hire a lawyer. When a family member does hire a lawyer, it is almost certain that the party on the other side will claim to be “disappointed” that a “family matter” had to “turn into a legal dispute.” Sometimes, of course, this is because the “disappointed” party has taken large amounts of money, and doesn’t want to get caught. Under no circumstances should anyone be dissuaded from seeking legal counsel for fear of “disappointing” others. It is far more disappointing to find that a loved one’s estate has been mishandled or his or her property stolen. The key to solving a legal dispute is, always, obtaining professional legal advice.