Probate and estate administration are terms used to describe the legal process of settling the estate of a deceased person. In Washington, D.C., the Superior Court has jurisdiction over probate matters and serves as the probate court. D.C. Code Ann. § 18-101. The process involves submitting a petition and the decedent’s will, if any, to the court. If the court approves, the estate will move into the administration process and the will, if any, will be admitted to probate. The process is managed by a personal representative who was appointed by the court. As an experienced Washington, D.C. probate disputes lawyer will explain, while the process involves taking care a set of routine tasks, probate disputes can develop that must be address before the administration process can be completed.
Types of Probate Disputes in Washington, D.C.
Two of the most common types of probate disputes are will contests and fiduciary disputes.
Will Contests. A will contest is a dispute that develops when there are allegations that the will submitted to the court for probate is not a valid will. The court will only probate a will that is valid. It will reject an invalid will and declare the estate intestate. There are three common reasons that a will is declared invalid.
- Lack of testamentary capacity. Under Washington, D.C. law, in order to make a will, the testator must be “of sound and disposing mind and capable of executing a valid deed or contract.” D.C. Code Ann. § 18-102. This means that at the time the will was executed, the testator must have understood the impact of executing that particular will. If the testator suffered from advanced dementia or another serious cognitive disorder, then they would not have testamentary capacity. Proof of this would cause the court to throw out the will. The law also requires that the testator to have been at least 18 years old at the time the will was executed.
- Undue influence. A will would not be valid if the testator had been subject to manipulation by someone else and as a result, the will reflected the wishes of that person and not of the testator. As an experienced Washington, D.C. probate disputes lawyer will explain, undue influence is difficult but not impossible to prove. Typically, there is no direct evidence, but circumstantial evidence.
- Improper execution. Washington, D.C. has strict rules as to what is required to execute a valid will. These rules are generally nonnegotiable. For example, a will must be in writing, must be signed by the testator or at the direction of and in the presence of the testator, and must be signed by at least credible 2 witnesses. D.C. Code Ann. § 18-103
Note that in order to contest a will, the contesting party must have legal standing to do so. This means that the contesting party must have an interest in the matter because they are a beneficiary or heir.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
A personal representative is considered a fiduciary with respect to the estate. That means that they are legally required to perform their duties and responsibilities with the utmost honesty and care and must act in the best interest of the estate. The personal representative also has a great deal of power over the process. As a result, on occasion disputes develop between the personal representative and other parties to the process such as beneficiaries or heirs. Fiduciary litigation is highly complex and requires the counsel of an experienced probate disputes attorney in Washington, D.C.
Common reasons for fiduciary litigation include:
- Unauthorized self-dealing
- Wasting estate assets by failure to properly secure and manage them
- Failing to follow an order for the court or failing to fulfill legal requirements
- Objections to the fiduciary’s fee or an accounting
In an estate proceeding, other fiduciaries may include trustees and guardians. Their actions may also be the subject of fiduciary litigation.
Consequences of Probate Disputes
Litigation during the estate administration process can have a substantial impact on the outcome of the administration process. For example, if a will contest is successful and the estate is declared intestate, the result may be that some or all of the distributees change and the personal representative may change. Any type of probate litigation will result in an added expense to the estate and will lengthen the time of process. To ensure that disputes are handled in the most efficient manner and that your interests are protected, contact an experienced probate disputes attorney serving Washington, D.C.