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Dealing with Probate Disputes: A Comprehensive Guide

probate disputesProbate disputes are scary to think about and even more terrifying to experience firsthand. The possibility of family members becoming enemies or estate assets turning into legal fees is seriously concerning. Wouldn’t it be better to know how to deal with a probate dispute when it happens and how to prevent conflicts in the first place?

If the idea of probate disputes confuses and alarms you, this article will shed light on the subject.

Common Reasons Why Probate Disputes Come Up

Why do disputes come up in probate in the first place?

Recognizing the causes of probate conflict helps nip it in the bud. The following are the most common reasons for probate disputes:

Lack of trust between family members 

  • The family members may have had personal issues that led them not to trust each other during this time—for example, sibling rivalry.
  • The family may not be close or have estranged family members. They do not know each other well, so there is no foundation of trust. The executor or administrator might also hold grudges towards one of the heirs or beneficiaries, or vice versa.

Communication issues

  • Family members have not been actively communicating with one another about the estate. For example, the personal representative may be evasive when someone initiates a discussion about the estate.
  • Certain family members may be excluding others in decision-making.

Questions about documentation

  • Family members have differing views about the terms of the will.Their loved one may have told them something different from what is in the will. Or the deceased may have promised to pass down a specific property to a beneficiary, only for them to find that this was not written in the will.
  • Estate assets partition does not make senseFamily members may be questioning the legitimacy of the estate planning process and documentation, including the will.
  • Contents of the will seem suspicious in terms of the distribution.
    For example, the personal representative has a significant cut, while the beneficiaries or heirs have little to none.

There are many other reasons that can spark disagreement between parties involved in probate that are not listed above. The ones mentioned are just the most common.

probate law

When Can a Dispute Come Up in the Probate?

A dispute can come up in any of the following phases:

Appointment Phase

If there is a will, someone in the family may not agree that it is valid and would want to contest it. Or someone may distrust the executor and intend to challenge their appointment to the role.

On the other hand, if there is no will, the family may disagree on who can best serve as the administrator. In some cases, someone in the family could attempt to contest the person requesting to become the administrator.

Administration Phase

An heir or beneficiary could feel like the executor or administrator is mishandling the estate.

They could file in court against the personal representative, attempting to have the court demand an accounting or remove them from their position.

Distribution/Distribution Phase

An heir or beneficiary could disagree with the amount that the executor or administrator says they will receive from the estate.

Overall, a dispute can occur at any point in the probate process.

Typical Process of an Estate Dispute

Understanding the estate dispute process helps you prepare any necessary documents, whether you are the complainant or the defendant, and set proper expectations of what is about to happen.

The probate litigation goes through these five phases.

disputes5 Phases Of An Estate Dispute

Pleadings 

Pleading is making a formal accusation or allegation against the other party. The dispute begins with this phase, where each party states the legal basis for their claim.

Discovery 

In this phase, each party uses legal tools to gather evidence to support their claims in their pleadings. Some of these legal tools are:

  • Sending written questions to the other side and requiring them to answer those questions or requesting documents from them
  • Bringing people into a deposition
  • Inspecting a property

Motions 

Motion is when a party in the dispute asks the court to do something or make a decision. The most common are motion to compel and motion for summary judgment.

These may happen anytime during a case, but many occur after the discovery is complete.

Trial or Hearing

A trial or hearing is the main event of the dispute. At this stage, the parties will present their evidence and witnesses, and the court will determine the outcome of the claims made during the pleadings.

Either party will attempt to convince the court to favor them based on the evidence provided.

Appeal

Though not often used, someone can file an appeal when they believe that the judge has made a mistake at the trial that would affect the case’s outcome.

Most people refrain from using appeals because to file an appeal, there needs to be a legal mistake made by the court. It is not something you can do just because you are not pleased with the result of the trial.

 

Steps to Prevent Probate Disputes

Estate battles can be chaotic once they start, so it’s best practice to take proactive steps to avoid them and try to keep relationships intact.

If you are the personal representative, you must:

  • Familiarize yourself with the probate laws of Georgia
  • Act in the best interests of the heirs and beneficiaries
  • Keep accurate records of all estate-related transactions
  • Proactively report the probate progress to heirs or beneficiaries
  • Refrain from doing actions that may appear self-dealing

If you are an heir or beneficiary, you should:

  • Familiarize yourself with the terms of the will and understand your rights
  • Communicate effectively with the executor or administrator of the estate and politely express any concerns or questions you have regarding the probate process
  • Be patient and understanding since probate is time-consuming
  • Be willing to compromise if matters do not go the way they should
  • Be cooperative when working towards a solution in the best interest of all the parties involved

Most Common Types of Estate Disputes

From the moment the will is made known to family members up to the point of distribution, conflicts can happen at any time. These are the most typical types:

  • Contests on the validity of the will
    Someone may question the will’s validity if he believes the will is obtained by undue influence or if the testator (the person who makes the will) was incapable of making decisions at the time of will-writing.
  • Disputes over assets distribution
    Heirs and beneficiaries may disagree on how the personal representative distributes the assets. They may throw accusations of being unfair, unjust, and unequal to the personal representative, or, a specific family member may have yet to receive the property the decedent promised them.
  • Disagreements with the appointed personal representative’s estate administration
    Conflicts may arise if the heirs or beneficiaries suspect that the executor or administrator is mismanaging the estate.

How Are Disputes in an Estate Situation Resolved?

Family members may have conflicting interests, but at the end of the day, everyone has one goal – to resolve disputes and move on with their lives.

The following ways can help resolve disputes:

Negotiations

It can start with informal negotiations that could lead to a settlement, typically between the attorneys at different points throughout a dispute.

Mediation 

Another way is through mediation. It is a formal process designed to encourage settlement, and the court requires it in almost all cases. All parties meet, and a mediator is present to help resolve issues and determine if a settlement is possible.

Settlement

If all parties agree, a dispute can end immediately with a written settlement. All options are on the table since there are very few limits on what the parties can agree upon.

Hearing or Trial

A hearing may occur if all attempts to resolve the dispute have failed. Both parties must produce evidence, an investigation will happen, and the probate court judge will decide on the outcome.

probate court hearing

Your Next Step

While this guide provides an overview of how disputes work in probate, it may not be enough to keep you out of trouble, mainly if family disputes have already occurred years before the passing of a loved one.

We recommend that you seek assistance from an experienced probate litigation attorney to navigate the situation as stress-free as possible. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the probate process, contact our office at (770) 796-4271.

Download the Georgia Probate Handbook.

Learn Important Probate Essentials, including key things that go wrong in an estate, how to prevent them, and what to do if they happen.

    About the author

    Erik J. Broel
    Founder & ceo

    Erik founded the firm in 2009. He sees it as his personal mission to demystify the process of handling an estate or trust, and to help people by making the complex estate process simple and accessible. He believes there is always a better way to do things, and loves finding new and innovative ways to deliver better, more effective service that solves the client’s key problem or issue, and improves the client’s life.

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