Probate law is the process of making sure an individual’s assets are properly distributed after death. This also includes paying off debt, and making sure all creditors have been satisfied, when relevant. In a best-case scenario, grieving family members would not have to worry about adding a stressful legal battle on top of already-raw emotions. However, real life rarely goes as smoothly as we want it to, and it is common for conflicts to arise in this arena.
While probate law is technically its own category of legal practice, at Neal Ashmore, we understand that probate—by its very nature—is usually a family affair. Because of this, we have made probate law an integral part of our family law practice. Here’s a basic overview of wills and trusts, and how our Texas probate litigators can help you.
In simplest terms, a will is a legal document that states where you want your property to go once you die. This might sound straight forward, but many problems can arise when trying to execute these terms. When a formal argument is made to invalidate all or some of a person’s will, this is called a will contest. In general, it can be difficult to persuade a Texas court to overturn a valid will, however, it can happen, and here’s how.
Interpretation of Document Language
Words are powerful, and when interpreting a will, probates judges are bound not by the individual’s intent, but rather, the actual language of the document. Ergo, if a term or phrase is ambiguous, a beneficiary could have an argument that the clause in question should be settled by a matter of law.
Another scenario that could prompt a will contest, is if someone improperly manipulated the decedent (the person who died) during the will’s drafting. This is called undue influence, and for this argument to prevail, Texas law requires three elements to be met:
- Someone had influence over the decedent, and exerted that influence;
- That the influence was strong enough to overpower the decedent’s mind at the time of drafting; and
- The terms of the will would not have been written that way, if not for the influence.
Furthermore, these elements require actual evidence—mere suspicion of undue influence isn’t enough. Neither is a romantic relationship, for that matter. Rather, the contester must provide proof that the influence was strong enough to rob the decedent of free will at the time of drafting.
Instances of fraud would also make a probate judge think twice about upholding a will. In probate law, fraud is when someone intentionally submits an improper will or false information, with the intent to deceive. Again, evidence is key here. Whether it was an executor, spouse, guardian, administrator, or trustee who committed the fraud, the challenger must act quickly, and be able to provide ample evidence to support such a claim.
This applies to both the individual’s age, and his or her mental fortitude. The first is pretty straightforward. Since minors do not have the power to make legally binding documents, the decedent must have been at least eighteen at the time the will was made, otherwise it’s void.
The second element—proving someone had a sound mind—can be a bit trickier. Especially since people often suffer from brief lapses in awareness as they grow older. In Texas, courts have ruled that the mere presence of these lapses (such as dementia or Alzheimer’s) does not necessarily invalidate a will, so long as the person has a clear understanding of business, property, beneficiaries, and the will execution process at the time of drafting.
Interference With Inheritance Rights
Of course, problems with wills aren’t excluded to inside tampering or poorly worded paragraphs. Sometimes, estate beneficiaries may find themselves in a situation where an outside third-party has interfered with their ability to claim an inheritance. In probate, this meddling is considered an actionable claim if the actions intentionally prevented a beneficiary from inheriting. This avenue allows beneficiaries to claim damages against an outside influencer instead of (or in addition to) the actual estate.
Wills are not the only place where probate law comes into close proximity with family law. Another area of probate law Neal Ashmore covers, is trusts.
In contrast to wills, where a court oversees the transfer of a decedent’s property, trusts allow individuals to bequeath assets after death without the hassle and cost of probate court. It may be helpful to think of a trust as a kind of savings account. Here, an individual (the “trustor) puts property into an account (so to speak), to be overseen and executed by another party (the “trustee,” a kind of banker, in our scenario). Once the trust is complete, the trustor no longer owns the property, which means that upon death, the terms of the trust can be executed without having to slog through probate. It’s a little convoluted, and there are many different types of trusts out there, but those are the basics. If a trust is something you’re interested in, a Neal Ashmore attorney can help you decide which type of trust will best fit your needs.
Trust Disputes and Trustee Misconduct
Unfortunately, despite the convenience of avoiding probate court, trust disputes still do occur. One common reason for these disagreements can arise in regards to the trust’s drafting. For example, if trust assets were not properly accounted for, or if there was an uneven division of property between beneficiaries.
Another trigger for trust litigation blossoms out of trustee misconduct. Examples of this misconduct could include improper favoritism towards certain beneficiaries, mishandling of property and investments, or failing to execute the trust according its terms.
Whether you have concerns about the trust, itself, or are worried about trustee misconduct, the team at Neal Ashmore is well equipped to handle the full range of trust-related issues. Avoiding probate court doesn’t mean you have to put up with something that isn’t right, and we are here to help make sure you benefit the way the trustor intended.
Probate Litigation Attorneys in Texas
Death can be difficult enough without the added stress of a law suit, however, sometimes it’s inevitable. Especially if you were counting on a will or trust to help maintain your family’s financial health. If you or a loved one have questions about your inheritance, or wish to draft your own legal document, the probate attorneys at Neal Ashmore may be able to help. Call us today at (972) 436-8000, or schedule a consultation online to discuss your specific situation. Our team of skilled attorneys understand the broad range of complexities involved probate law, and are ready to litigate fiercely on behalf of your inheritance rights.