Comprehensive Estate Planning is an effective way of ensuring that one’s assets are distributed according to their wishes. Unfortunately, sometimes disputes arise between beneficiaries, family members, and fiduciaries such as executors and trustees. Common issues in cases involving contested wills can include whether the will was the product of undue influence (inappropriate pressure on the testator or person whose will is being contested) or whether the testator lacked testamentary intent. Other issues that may arise include where an estate’s executor, administrator, or personal representative failed to properly carry out their duties.
The Atlantic County estate litigation attorneys at Levine Staller have extensive experience litigating all types of estate and trust matters on behalf of Executors, Administrators, Trustees, and Beneficiaries, including:
When an individual is compelled, manipulated, or coerced into executing a will or trust that distributes their property in an unexpected manner, it is possible that the Will can be contested as invalid. Elderly people and those with mental disabilities are particularly vulnerable to undue influence, coercion or duress. Unfortunately, sometimes people performing necessary caretaking functions exploit this opportunity to take advantage of a sick or elderly individual.
New Jersey law presumes that the testator was competent when the will was executed, and the person contesting the will must prove that there was undue influence when the will was executed. This type of exploitation can be difficult to prove because in New Jersey.
Undue influence can be proven when (1) the will benefits someone in a confidential relationship with the testator, and (2) there were “suspicious circumstances” including “weakness” or “dependence.”
Lack of Testamentary Intent
This refers to situations in which an individual did not have sufficient capacity to execute their will. Minors (those under the age of 18) and those with mental disabilities are deemed legally incapable of understanding the nature of their actions and the resulting consequences and are therefore incapable of entering into a contract or executing a will or trust. A will or trust can be voided if a lack of capacity is proven. Our trust and estate litigation lawyers are skilled in gathering and analyzing all pertinent evidence to prove lack of testamentary intent such as statements from family members, medical records, and financial records.
Fraud, Forgery, or Altercation
Sometimes individuals who feel as though their interests are not adequately represented by a testamentary instrument may forge or alter the document. This type of probate fraud must be proven by comparing the questionable signature to valid signatures. At Levine Staller, we work with experts to gather the evidence necessary to prove a forgery or altercation was committed that rendered the Will invalid.
Validity of a Will/ Unlawful Destruction
In some cases, an original will cannot be located, and a copy of a will must be probated. This requires a Court proceeding. There is a presumption that the original will was destroyed and therefore revoked. It is the burden of the person filing the action to rebut this presumption by clear and convincing evidence. This can often be a difficult burden to meet.
Sometimes an individual will attempt to unlawfully destroy or introduce an invalid copy of a will. In New Jersey, a will may only be altered by execution of another will or codicil explaining the change. A Will may be revoked by executing a subsequent will or by physically destroying a will such as burning it or ripping it up. The evidence necessary to prove this type of claim can often become compromised by someone seeking to cover up their wrongdoing. Our attorneys will move quickly and aggressively to demand discovery and secure the disputed assets.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
An executor, estate administrator, or personal representative responsible for making sure that the decedent’s wishes are carried out or that the estate of a person who died without a will is administered according to the law. As fiduciaries, they have a duty of undivided loyalty and impartiality. Fiduciaries have a duty to act within the scope of the Will and law, to make full disclosures to beneficiaries, provide an accounting, and to take all reasonable steps to manage, protect and preserve the estate’s assets. Although they are supposed to act solely in the best interests of the Estate and its beneficiaries, executors sometimes breach that duty.
Executors who embezzle, waste or misapply any part of the estate or otherwise abuse that trust and confidence may be removed by the court and/or compelled to account for their activities and the estate’s assets, and can be found liable for their breach of fiduciary duty.
Sometimes a decedent will intentionally omit their spouse or civil union partner from their will. New Jersey law provides an elective share to surviving spouses or civil union partner. An elective share provides a portion of the deceased spouse or partner’s estate according to a statutory formula regardless of what the Will may provide.
A guardianship is a court-supervised decision maker. Guardians can be appointed over a person, their property, or both. If the court determines that an individual is incapable of making decisions for themselves, it will appoint a guardian (sometimes a family member, friend, or neutral lawyer), to make decisions for that individual. In some situations, there may be conflict surrounding who the Court should appoint as guardian.
Anthony Morgano and John Hoffman are both routinely appointed by the Court to serve as guardians or counsel for alleged incapacitated individuals. Our attorneys represent clients who seek guardianship over their loved ones, as well as those who seek to contest guardianship.
Atlantic County Estate Planning Lawyers at Levine Staller Represent Clients in Estate and Trust Litigation
Estate and Trust litigation can be legally and emotionally difficult. There are strict deadlines for contesting a will. It is therefore imperative that you seek the counsel of a qualified attorney as soon as you can. The Atlantic County estate planning lawyers at Levine, Staller, Sklar, Chan & Brown, P.A. are experienced in all matters of estate and trust litigation. To arrange a confidential consultation, call us at 609-348-1300 or contact us online. From our offices in Atlantic City, we represent clients in Atlantic County, Cape May County, Ocean County, and throughout South Jersey.