In the months after a loved one’s death, the emotions of surviving family members can run high. When one or more parties challenge their loved one’s last will and testament, the competence of the estate administrator, or other estate matters, estate litigation can occur. You may become involved in a legal dispute regarding your deceased family member’s final wishes.
The attorneys at Jones Gregg Creehan Gerace have represented many clients in a wide range of estate litigation matters ranging from will contests to breach of fiduciary duty claims. Whatever legal matter you face, our skilled attorneys are here to help. The skilled attorneys at Jones Gregg Creehan Gerace are prepared to advocate for you. Contact us to schedule an initial consultation and learn more about how.
Common Causes of Estate Litigation
Many estate-related disputes occur when the deceased, also called the decedent, does not have a valid last will and testament. Without a last testament, an individual dies “intestate,” and their estate will be distributed according to Pennsylvania’s intestacy laws. Family members eligible to inherit all or part of the estate may challenge the distribution of assets in probate court.
One of the best ways to avoid estate litigation is to work with an attorney to create a comprehensive, legally valid estate plan. However, conflicts leading to estate litigation can still occur when the decedent has a valid last will and testament. Interested parties can challenge the decedent’s last will and testament and the estate administrator’s decisions.
Challenges Related to the Validity of the Will
For a last will and testament to be legally valid in Pennsylvania, it must meet all of the requirements under Pennsylvania law. A family member who may be entitled to inherit part of the estate can challenge a will in many different ways.
They may claim that eligible witnesses did not witness the will. Additionally, if the decedent used an online company or template to create a will, the will’s validity could be challenged. In some cases, multiple wills are discovered after the decedent’s death, leading to conflict related to which will is valid and should be enforced.
Challenges Related to a Lack of Capacity
Under Pennsylvania law, the individual who created a last testament must have had the required mental capacity to do so. An interested party may challenge the will by claiming that the decedent was not competent and could not understand what they were doing when they created the will. Suppose the decedent had dementia that resulted in difficulty understanding their actions when creating the will. In that case, the decedent’s mental capacity could be challenged. An interested family member may be able to successfully claim that the decedent did not understand that they were creating a will. As a result, the relative might argue that the will does not represent the decedent’s true wishes.
Claims of Undue Influence
Other will challenges involve claims that one or more people exerted undue influence on the person creating the will. Even if a will is legally valid in Pennsylvania, the court may refuse to enforce it if it can be proven that another person exerted undue influence on the person creating it.
For example, suppose one person or part of the surviving family receives significantly more assets than the rest. The family members who did not receive significant assets may pursue a legal claim that their loved one was coerced to change their will by the very people who would receive more compensation after the will was changed. In many cases, claims of undue influence occur alongside claims related to lack of capacity.
Heirs Challenge the Estate Administrator
The person selected to be the estate administrator in the deceased individual’s will has an enormous responsibility. When the decedent does not select an estate administrator, the probate court will appoint one.
If a family member or heir has concerns about the person named as the executor or administrator of the will, disputes may rise to litigation. When an estate administrator engages in any of the following types of unethical activities, estate litigation could result:
- Favoring certain beneficiaries
- Failure to fulfill fiduciary duties
- Failure to discharge duties and powers effectively
- Violating rules against self-dealing
- Misappropriating estate assets
- Disregarding an order of the probate court
- Mismanaging property
- Failure to perform a material duty
- Failure to provide an accurate accounting of estate assets
Breach of Fiduciary Duties
Personal representatives have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries of the estate. As a result, they must act in the best interest of the beneficiaries, not in their own best interests. When personal representatives fail in their fiduciary duties, family members may have a right to petition the court to remove them from their position. They may also have a legal claim for compensation for the damages caused by the personal representative.
Will and Trust Construction and Interpretation
Even when a last will and testament or trust is legally valid, disputes can still arise about how the terms in these legal documents should be interpreted. An interested party may bring a legal claim against the estate administrator when language is ambiguous or contradictory. Litigation may involve determining the meaning and impact of the last will and testament or trust regarding which beneficiary or beneficiary should inherit compensation.
Contact an Experienced Pittsburgh Estate Litigation Attorney
Family conflicts, combined with the heightened emotions involved after a loved one’s death, can lead to conflicts and disputes between family members. The Pittsburgh estate planning attorneys at Jones Gregg Creehan Gerace understand how difficult it can be for families to lose a loved one. We can work with you and the opposing party to resolve the dispute before litigation occurs but are always ready to represent you in court if necessary.
If you are involved in a legal dispute related to your loved one’s estate that could lead to estate litigation, don’t delay. Contact the attorneys at Jones Gregg Creehan Gerace to schedule an initial consultation and learn more about your legal rights and options.