Beneficiaries, heirs or other interested parties have legal recourse under New Jersey laws to challenge wills, trusts or the administration of deceased loved ones’ estates. Even when an estate plan seems relatively straightforward, there can be disagreements or misunderstandings about key provisions or about the way an estate or trust is being administered.
While it is usually only celebrity estate litigation that makes the evening news, challenging a will or trust – or challenging the competence or actions of a fiduciary handling someone’s estate – are common occurrences in New Jersey Surrogate Courts.
If you are wondering how to litigate against an estate, this blog post will cover common grounds, steps involved in the process and considerations for choosing an estate litigation attorney to represent your interests.
Legal Grounds for Litigating an Estate
There are many reasons you might need to litigate against an estate in New Jersey. Some of the most common reasons include the following:
- Fraud or undue influence – If you are concerned that your loved one may have been the victim of fraud, or that someone may have exerted undue influence over him or her to execute a will or change beneficiary designations, you have the right to take legal action.
- Lack of mental capacity – In order to make a valid will, trust or other estate planning document, New Jersey residents must have the mental capacity to understand their estate, understand what they were signing and understand the implications of their decisions. If you believe your loved one was not mentally competent at the time he or she signed a legal document, you can litigate based on a lack of mental capacity.
- Improper execution – To make a will or trust legally valid, it must meet certain requirements at the time it is signed, including two witnesses to the deceased person’s signature. If you believe there was a problem with the way your loved one’s legal document was executed, you can challenge on these grounds.
- Unlawful lifetime transfers – Improper transfers that were made from your deceased loved one to others in the three years immediately preceding his or her death may be challenged. This can happen when someone acting under an otherwise-valid power of attorney abuses their power, or when a joint account holder takes advantage of the power to access jointly held funds.
- Removing an executor – If you believe the executor named in your loved one’s will or the administrator appointed by probate court isn’t acting appropriately or is acting unlawfully, you can take legal action to request removal of that person.
- Challenging a trustee’s actions – Trustees of trusts are acting in a fiduciary capacity, which means they must act in the best interest of the trust and its beneficiaries. Sometimes, it is necessary to legally challenge a trustee’s decisions or actions through the legal process.
- Objections to estate or trust accountings – When an executor or trustee provide an accounting of the estate or trust, it is important to review them carefully. If something doesn’t look right and you are unable to resolve or clarify your concern directly with the executor or trustee, it may be necessary to take legal action.
Understanding the Process of Estate Litigation
When possible, most attorneys recommend trying to resolve your legal matter or dispute before it gets to litigation. In the event the matter cannot be settled or resolved outside of court, the next step is taking the case to litigation.
Every estate litigation situation is a little bit different. The grounds for challenging the estate or trust, the size of the estate, the family dynamics and number of beneficiaries or heirs and the relationships between beneficiaries, heirs and executors/trustees all come into play.
When you are exploring how to litigate against an estate, one of the most important things to know is that the process will involve filing legal documents through New Jersey courts. In some cases, this doesn’t happen until after the will has already gone through a probate court proceeding.
After the initial challenge has been filed, the estate administrator, executor or trustee will have a certain time period to respond to the allegations. You will need to gather and present evidence to support your claim. If your matter goes to trial, a Chancery Judge will hear and decide on your case.
There are time limits under the law for challenging a will, trust or the administration of an estate, so it is important to discuss your concerns with an estate litigation attorney as soon as you become aware of them.
Choosing an Estate Litigation Attorney
When evaluating attorneys who could help you litigate against an estate in New Jersey, look for an experienced estate litigation lawyer. The law surrounding estates, trusts and probate can be complex and nuanced. An estate planning attorney, or an attorney who doesn’t regularly handle trust or estate litigation, may simply lack the resources to represent you effectively.
An attorney who knows how to litigate against an estate can help you protect your deceased loved one’s legacy, helping to ensure that his or her wishes will be honored.