In Washington, a decedent’s estate must go through a legal process referred to as estate administration before the assets can be transferred to others. The process is overseen by the probate court. In Washington, probate court is part of the Superior Court system. If a dispute develops during the process, it can lead to probate litigation that must be settled by a probate court judge. There are many issues that can form the basis of probate litigation including will contests, issues related to fiduciaries, will constructions, and disagreements with claimants.
A will contest is a formal challenge to the validity of a will that has been admitted to probate. Once a will is accepted by the probate court judge, an interested party has 4 months to file an objection asking the court to revoke probate. Wash. Rev. Code § 11.24.010. Interested parties are generally limited to beneficiaries named in the will that was filed, beneficiaries to a prior will, and legal heirs of the decedent. In re Estate of Becker, 177 Wash. 2d 242 (Wash. 2013). The objection must include reasons.
According to the statute, the legal bases for a will contest include:
- Incompetent testator
- Improper execution
- Undue influence
- Fraudulent representations
- Any other issue impacting the validity of all or part of the will.
Wash. Rev. Code § 11.24.010.
If after a trial the court concludes that the will is not valid, the court will revoke probate of all or part of the will. Administration of the estate will move forward as if the will did not exist or as if the part of the will that was declared invalid did not exist. If probate is revoked for the entire will and there is no prior valid will, then Washington’s law of intestate succession will apply. Wash. Rev. Code § 11.04.
Washington also allows for lawsuits to be brought to prove a will that was denied probate. The proponents of the will must provide evidence that the will is indeed valid and should be probated.
Probate litigation can be based on disputes involving the personal representative, trustee, guardian, attorney, or another fiduciary involved with the estate. For example, there may be objections to the appointment of the personal representative or disagreement over who should serve as guardian of the minor children of the decedent. There may be disagreement over how the personal representative has managed the assets of the estate.
Because of the position of trust that a fiduciary has, their actions are closely scrutinized. If it appears as if they have breached their duties, their actions can be challenged in court.
Litigation by Creditors
Creditors must file claims against the estate within a specified timeframe. As long as there are enough assets in the estate to do so, the personal representative is required to pay all of the claims that are filed on time and that have been substantiated. If the personal representative determines that a claimant has not shown that a claim is valid, they have a fiduciary duty to deny the claim.
If their claim is rejected, the creditor can continue to pursue payment by suing the personal representative. They must bring the lawsuit within 30 days of notification of rejection of the claim. Wash. Rv. Code § 11.04.
Impact of Probate Disputes
The impact of a probate dispute on the process and its outcome can be profound. Most probate litigation will slow down the administration process, resulting in a delay in the distribution of assets. It can also diminish estate assets as the expenses related to the litigation may be paid out of estate assets.
Depending on the type of dispute and its outcome, probate litigation can have the following additional impact on probate:
- Will invalidated (e.g. if will contest is successful)
- Change in beneficiaries (e.g. if will contest is successful)
- Change in personal representative (e.g. if challenge to eligibility is successful)
- Diminished estate value (e.g. if creditor wins claim)
- Change in guardianship (e.g. if objection to guardianship is successful)