The Emotions of Estate Disputes

We write a lot about estate disputes and litigation , , , because we are frequently involved in them. We have brought cases on behalf of beneficiaries and heirs and we have defended cases on behalf of the estate and/or executors. Every case is, of course, different, sometimes wildly so. They do share, however, one characteristic – they are fraught with emotion.

Emotions that run the gamut from hurt and rejection to acceptance and closure. A big part of our job, especially in the early stages of a matter. is managing emotions and expectations. Actually, they tend to overlap. Often. That complicates matters.Regardless, it’s always our job to point out … certain truths. Truths that may hurt, but must be faced in order to move on.

A few days ago we posted an article from BBC News about a seventy-year old woman in Great Britain who died in 2005 and left her entire estate to animal charities. Her daughter (and only heir) received nothing. At the time of her death, the estate was worth about $800,000 in US Dollars.

The daughter, unsurprisingly, sued. She is married, has five children, and had fallen into financial hardship when the economy tanked. Her family was living on public benefits. Her attorneys argued that her mother’s distributions were unfair, and, as a matter of public policy, it would be better for her, and her children, to be awarded the estate so they would no longer be dependent on government subsidies to live. Her lawyers also pointed out that she had lost her retirement funds, it was unlikely she could recoup them in any significant way, and would, therefore, continue to be dependent for life.

A solid argument. An early court awarded her 150,000£ (about $300,000 at the time). That award, however, was thrown out on appeal (by, of course, the charities).

Their argument was simple, the mother had explicitly excluded her daughter from the will. Not only had she stated within the will that her daughter was to get nothing, she backed it up with a letter laying out all the reasons why.

It was unpleasant, even the deceased’s lawyer said she was ‘pugnacious and capricious’, but it was clearly what she wanted. She simply did not like her daughter.

This is extreme (we hope!) but it is indicative of the kind of truths, the kind of conversations we have to have with our clients.

Sometimes this is not a profession for the weak-hearted.

Call us, please, if you have any questions along any of these lines.