Probate is the process of proving that a will is valid and settling the decedent’s estate. It is also referred to as estate administration. A probate dispute can develop at any stage during the process of estate administration and can involve any party to the proceeding such as the personal representative, beneficiaries, heirs, or creditors. In Rhode Island the Probate Court has jurisdiction over estate matters and the probate judge will settle disputes that must be litigated.
A will contest is a type of probate litigation that involves a formal challenge to the validity of a will. Valid reasons for contesting a will include lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, improper execution, or duress or coercion.
- Lack of testamentary capacity. If at the time that the testator executed their will the testator was less than 18 years old or was not mentally competent the will would not be valid as Rhode Island law requires that a testator must be at least 18 years old and must be of “sane mind” at the time they executed the will. RI Gen L § 33-5-2
- Undue influence. Undue influence involves intentionally manipulating someone who is in a vulnerable position such that the manipulator’s will is substituted for the testator’s. As a result, the will does not reflect the wishes of the testator, but of the manipulator. Such a will is invalid.
- Improper execution. Rhode Island has strict rules as to what is required to execute a will. These rules are nonnegotiable. For example, a will must be in writing, must be signed by the testator, and must be signed by at least 2 witnesses. RI Gen L § 33-5-5
- Duress or coercion. A testator makes a will under duress if a threat caused the testator to make a will favoring the person who made the threats that the testator would not have otherwise made.
To initiate a will contest, the objectant must submit a written objection with the Probate Court.
A successful will contest will have a profound impact on the direction of the estate administration process. Instead of the decedent’s estate going to beneficiaries named in the will, it will go to the decedent’s intestate heirs as defined by Rhode Island’s law of intestate succession.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
Disagreements involving the personal representative can also lead to probate litigation. The personal representative has a tremendous amount of power and is responsible for the day-to-day activities of settling the estate. However, the personal representative must perform their duties with honesty and good faith and must always do what is in the best interests of the estate and not themselves.
Common reasons for fiduciary litigation include:
- Improper investment of estate assets
- Unauthorized self-dealing
- Objecting to an accounting submitted by the personal representative
- Wasting estate assets by failure to properly secure and manage them
- Failing to follow an order for the court
With respect to an estate or probate proceeding, other fiduciaries may include a trustee, guardian, attorney, and accountant.
Elective Share Disputes
In Rhode Island married persons are entitled to receive a portion of their spouse’s estate. In other words, they cannot be completely disinherited. Instead of accepting what was left to them in their spouse’s will, the surviving spouse may choose to take an “elective share” which would be a distribution from the estate that is equal to the life estate and allowance of an intestate’s real estate. RI Gen L § 33-28-1. The spouse must make the election within the later of 6 months after date the personal representative was appointed but can request an extension. RI Gen L § 33-28-4
Elective share disputes may develop between the personal representative and the surviving spouse over how to calculate the amount of the elective share or whether the election was properly and timely made.
Other Types of Probate Disputes
Other types of disagreements during the estate administration process can include a will construction, guardianship disputes, and heirship claims.
If there are terms of a will that are ambiguous such that the testator’s intent is unclear, the parties may ask the Probate Court judge to construe the vague terms. Guardianship disputes can develop if someone challenges a guardianship appointment or believes that the guardian has not been fulfilling their duties properly. Heirship disputes can arise when someone claims to be an heir and others dispute that claim. The court may ask that person to prove eligibility to inherit by presenting evidence of relatedness.