A dispute during probate can have a significant impact on the administration of an estate. Probate and estate administration are legal processes during which the will of a decedent is validated, and the estate of a decedent is settle. The process starts with the filing of the will, if any. The Probate Court will appoint a personal representative to manage the administration process. The job of the personal representative is to care for the decedent’s property during administration, make sure that bills and expense are paid, and ultimately distribute estate assets to those who are legally entitle to them.
The personal representative must also deal with disputes that may arise during the process. Common disputes are related to the validity of the will and the actions of the fiduciaries.
If the decedent left a will, the first step in the administration process is filing the will with the court. The court will review the will to make sure that it is valid. The court will not admit a will that is invalid to probate. If someone such as a beneficiary or heir believes that the will is not valid, they can object to it being admitted to probate. Reasons that a court will invalidate a will include:
- Legal incapacity. For a will to be valid in Massachusetts, the testator must have had legal capacity to execute it. This means that at the time the will was executed, the testator must have been at least 18 years old and must have been of “sound mind.”
- Duress. A will that was forced is invalid. The testator must have made the will out of their own free will. Duress, whether physical or mental, would invalidate a will.
- Undue influence. Undue influence exists where a testator was manipulated by a trusted person into including terms in a will that they would not have otherwise included. As a result, the will would not reflect the wishes of the testator, but of the manipulator, making the will invalid.
- Improper execution. For a will to be valid in Massachusetts, it must have been properly executed. This means that the will must have been signed by the testator and at least two witnesses must be present to observe the signing or must acknowledge the signing. The witnesses must also sign the will. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 2-502.
Disputes during the administration process sometimes center on the personal representative. The personal representative is a fiduciary. A fiduciary is a person or entity that has the legal authority and responsibility of acting for another in situations requiring trust, good faith, and honesty. With respect to the estate of a decedent, there may be several different types of fiduciaries, but the most common type is the personal representative.
The personal representative acts on behalf of the estate and must always keep the best interests of the estate in mind. In fact, when it comes to matters of the estate, the personal representative must put the interests of the estate above their own self-interest.
If the a personal representative breaches their fiduciary duty, then an interested party can file a petition with the court seeking removal of the personal representative, financial sanctions, or other relief.
Issues with the fiduciary that may lead to fiduciary litigation include self-dealing, failing to secure estate property, discrepancies with the accounting, and failure to follow and order of the court.
Impact of Probate Disputes
A dispute during probate will extend the time of the administration process. Normally, the probate and administration process takes about 9-12 months in Massachusetts. There are many factors that will impact the timeframe and every estate is different. One of those factors is whether there are complications such as disputes that lead to litigation. If there is prolonged litigation, the administration process may take much longer than 12 months.
A dispute during probate can impact the value of the estate. Generally, the expenses that the personal representative incurred that are associated with litigation are paid from the estate, including attorney’s fees. Prolonged litigation can result in a significant expense to the estate which would lead to a decrease in the value of the estate.