In a perfect world, when someone died, their property and other assets would be managed by a trusted person or professional fiduciary of their choosing. What’s more, estate assets would be distributed to the people and/or charitable organizations that were most important to the deceased person, according to his or her wishes.
Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. Fortunately, wills, trusts and estates are administered correctly most of the time. However, occasionally, things are not handled the way they should be.
When there are concerns about how a will, trust or estate was (or is being) administered in Passaic County, NJ, an experienced estate litigation attorney may be able to help fight for your rights and ensure your loved one’s wishes are honored.
Understanding the Basics
You are probably familiar with what a will is, even if you have never personally had one prepared. However, sometimes there can be confusion about the difference between wills and trusts and what is involved in administering an estate when someone dies.
A will is a legal document that specifies how someone’s assets should be managed and distributed after their death. The will names an executor, the person responsible for handling the administrative tasks like safeguarding assets, handling final expenses, valid debts and tax filings and distributing remaining assets to the beneficiaries named in the will.
Trusts are often used instead of wills to direct how assets will be managed and distributed after the trust creator’s death. One reason people use trusts is so that assets held by the trust can avoid the expense and hassle of a probate court process. Trusts can also provide a way to manage assets from beyond the grave. For example, a parent who has concerns about a child being able to manage an inheritance might establish a trust that provides for someone to manage trust assets for the beneficiary, distributing funds only for specific types of expenses until the child reaches a certain age.
When an attorney talks about estate litigation, they may be referring broadly to challenging a will or a trust or to challenging the way that an executor is handling the management of the estate and all of the administrative tasks that come with the process.
Why Litigation Is Sometimes Necessary
Trustees and executors are fiduciaries, which means they have to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries of the trust, will or estate. Unfortunately, that does not always happen.
Sometimes, the person in charge of administering an estate is simply not equipped to handle the job properly. There can be a lot of moving pieces involved in estate and trust administration. Mismanagement can lead to problems for all of the beneficiaries down the road.
In other cases, the trustee or executor may be intentionally mismanaging things. You may also have concerns about the validity of a will or trust that another family member is trying to administer.
Litigation is sometimes a necessary step to ensure the deceased person’s assets are managed and distributed correctly.
Challenging or Contesting a Will
If you have concerns that your family member did not understand what he or she was signing when the will was created, or if you are questioning the validity of the will, an attorney can help.
Similarly, if you have reason to believe that someone exerted undue influence on your loved one, litigation to challenge the will can protect your rights and your loved one’s wishes.
NJ provides that a spouse who was cut out of their husband’s or wife’s will has the right to an “elective share.” If your spouse didn’t name you in their will, an estate litigation lawyer can fight for what the law says you’re entitled to.
Valid trust agreements should contain specifics about who the trust’s beneficiaries are, how assets are to be managed and distributed to them (or on their behalf) and what powers the trustee has in carrying out their responsibilities. Trusts may also provide limitations on the trustee or checks on their power.
Unfortunately, sometimes trustees abuse their authority and mismanage trust assets. Whether you are concerned about a trustee “self-dealing” or simply not doing their job right, litigation may be necessary.
One of the most common reasons for litigating an estate is a concern that the trustee or executor is unreasonably withholding distributions or is giving beneficiaries the run-around.
Estate litigation can also arise in a couple of other ways for those charged with administering an estate or serving as a trustee.
If a third-party creditor alleges that they were not paid appropriately, an executor or trustee may need to engage an attorney to help protect their rights.
Sometimes, executors and trustees also need to engage attorneys to help protect them when they are dealing with a beneficiary who is alleging wrongdoing.
Find the Right Lawyer in Passaic County, NJ to Help with Will, Trust and Estate Litigation
It is possible to challenge the administration of an estate, will or trust and win. If you have concerns that something doesn’t seem right with the way a loved one’s will, trust or probate matter is being handled, don’t keep those concerns to yourself.
Be aware there are time restrictions for contesting or challenging a will, trust or the administration of an estate, so it is important to engage a law firm as soon as possible. Some of these time limitations are very short, as little as three months.
Choose an experienced, knowledgeable estate attorney who understands, and has dealt with, the Passaic County, NJ Surrogate’s office. Finally, be sure to select a firm with litigation experience and a track record of fighting for their clients’ rights.