Resolving Family Feuds as the Executor of an Estate
You’ve been named the personal representative in a will, and then the day comes that the will must be administered in probate court. You have a set list of tasks you must accomplish as the newly named executor of the will, which can be formidable enough, but then a spat erupts among the heirs, and there’s a dispute over the contents or validity of the will.
Family Member A says the deceased father was unduly influenced by Family Member B when he executed his last will and testament. Family Member A thus contests the will and demands a bigger share of the estate. You’re now the executor of the decedent’s estate and you must somehow resolve this dispute before probate can come to a close. What to do?
If you’re the executor of a will in or around Los Angeles, California, and a challenge is launched by an heir, beneficiary, or creditor, you need to contact the Law Office of Rodney Gould. Rodney Gould is experienced in all aspects of probate law and can meet with you to explain your options for resolution.
The Law Office of Rodney Gould also serves all communities surrounding Los Angeles, including Sherman Oaks, Studio City, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills.
An Executor’s Role
The role of the executor of an estate is ultimately to distribute the assets to heirs and beneficiaries as dictated in the decedent’s last will and testament. Getting there, however, is a multi-phase process. The first phase is to present the will and the death certificate to the probate court that will oversee the process.
The next step is to notify heirs, beneficiaries, and creditors that the will is being administered. This gives creditors the chance to file their claims for debts outstanding. It also gives heirs and beneficiaries the chance to lodge any objections they have.
Assuming for now that the debts are discharged seamlessly and no one files a challenge, the ensuing steps include filing and paying taxes, inventorying the estate, and collecting it under the authority of the executor. If some assets need to be sold to meet obligations, the executor may have to hire an appraiser and a broker.
The final step is to distribute assets as specified in the last will and testament. If things go smoothly, then probate can be concluded in less than a year, but if challenges arise, the proceedings can drag out until some kind of resolution is found.
In most cases, each step of the probate process will have to be reviewed and approved by the probate judge. However, the executor can ask to be allowed to pursue what is called independent administration, meaning the review and approval process can be avoided.
Who Can File a Challenge to the Will?
Only those who fall into the legal category of “interested parties” can challenge the terms of a will. Interested parties are limited to three groups: creditors to whom the deceased owed money, heirs, and beneficiaries who are named in the will. A close personal friend who is not named in the will, though expecting to be taken care of in the will, has no standing to launch a challenge.
Grounds for Challenging a Will
Being unfairly treated in your view is not necessarily grounds for challenging the validity of a will. Instead, you must show that the will was not executed legally or properly. Reasons for challenging a will thus include:
Capacity: This is the saying so often heard in TV dramas – “of sound mind.” You must not only be 18 years or older to create a will, but you also must have the mental capacity to do so. An heir may, for instance, claim that when the will was executed, the testator (legalese for the person authoring the will) was suffering from dementia and thus lacked the capacity to pen a will.
Undue Influence: As in our example above, the testator was being swayed by someone else when authorizing the distribution of assets.
Violations of Provisions: To be valid in California, a will must be signed by the testator and witnessed by two others who are not named in the will. If any critical step is missed or violated, the will can be deemed invalid.
More Than One Will: If the testator created more than one will without voiding any of them, there can be a challenge over which will is valid, if any.
Common Types of Challenges
Probably the most frequent kind of challenge in probate proceedings arises from the children of the deceased arguing over who gets what. Unless this is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, long-lasting fissures in the family structure can result. Family disputes can wreak havoc even if no one actually challenges the validity of the will.
Another source could be a beneficiary named in the will who feels that he or she was promised more than the final document stipulates. Creditors also may show up with claims that you as the executor know nothing about and cannot easily verify.
Resources for Resolving Challenges
Rather than fighting everything out in probate court and having the judge rule on the validity of the will, it’s usually better to try to resolve matters through mediation.
A mediator can meet with all the contending parties, the executor, and other interested participants and try to come up with a common ground for a resolution. The mediator has no power to enforce a solution, so in the end, if the parties don’t sign off on the proposed solution, it’s back to square one.
If the dispute begins because the personal representative declines to become the executor, or later resigns or is forced out, then the heirs can agree on the appointment of an independent fiduciary to carry out the responsibilities of probate. The fiduciary could be a family member, a CPA, an attorney, or a trust administrator from a bank. If the heirs cannot agree or fail to assert their authority, the probate judge will name an executor.
Finally, when siblings lay claim to the same assets, it is possible to sell the assets and distribute the proceeds evenly.
Let Rodney Gould Help You
Most challenges and disputes will test the mettle of the executor, who, prior to probate, may have had no experience in finance or interpersonal relationships, let alone any knowledge of probate law. This is where the experience and resources of a probate attorney can prove invaluable.
If you’re the executor of an estate in or around Los Angeles, and disputes are stalling the probate process and threatening to prolong matters endlessly, contact the Law Office of Rodney Gould. Rodney Gould can assess the situation with you and map a strategy to resolve the conflict and complete the probate process as quickly as possible.