Estate Litigation - New Jersey Estate and Probate Lawyers

Estate Litigation - New J…

The probate lawyers of the Law Office of Bart J. Klein serve individuals and families facing estate disputes. Disagreements about an ill or deceased loved one's intentions or last will and testament — or about the administration of his or her estate — can be particularly emotional. We work closely with our clients to understand their concerns and resolve disputes amicably, if possible, and through litigation, if necessary. To determine your best course of action, consultation with New Jersey estate and probate lawyers is advisable.

When a person dies, all of their assets, often referred to as their “estate,” may be distributed or administered pursuant to various documents the person has signed, like wills, codicils, trust agreements and beneficiary designations for accounts at banks or other financial institutions. Or, if a person has no will, their estate may be distributed pursuant to the law of intestacy, which is determined by state law. Disputes also arise in connection with powers of attorney, living wills and health care directives. The aforementioned disputes may arise before or after the death of the signatory, depending on the circumstances. When a dispute arises in connection with the administration of an estate or a trust agreement, or the implementation of a power of attorney, living will or health care directive, the dispute may require court intervention if it cannot be resolved by the parties to the dispute.

Common Estate or Trust Disputes

Disputes regarding the assets of an estate or a trust often involve the beneficiaries and/or fiduciaries of the estate or trust. Beneficiaries are often relatives or friends of a deceased person, but can also include corporate entities, like charities. Fiduciaries are the people or entities responsible for managing and distributing estate and trust assets, like executors and trustees. They too are often relatives or friends of a deceased person, but may also include corporate entities, like banks.

Some common examples of estate litigation matters are:

Will Contests or Will Challenges

In a will contest, a party with an interest in the estate of a decedent challenges the validity of a will submitted to probate.

  • Lack of Capacity – Will contests are often based upon a claim that the decedent, also called the testator or testatrix, lacked the capacity, or in layman’s terms, the mental ability required by law, to sign a valid will. Generally speaking, the gauge of testamentary capacity is "whether the testator can comprehend the property he is about to dispose of; the natural objects of his bounty; the meaning of the business in which he is engaged; the relation of each of the factors to the others, and the distribution that is made by the will." In re Livingston's Will, 5 N.J. 65, 71 (1950). If the challenger of a will is successful, the will can be declared void.
  • Failure to Abide by Formalities – In New Jersey, state law requires that a will or trust be signed by the testator (the decedent) or grantor (the person creating the trust) and witnessed by two persons unrelated to the testator or grantor. If these or other formalities are not adhered to, a will or trust can be deemed void on this basis.
  • Undue Influence – Will contests may also be based upon a claim that the testator or testatrix was coerced into signing a will. This claim often goes hand in hand with a challenge based upon a lack of capacity but may also be made independently. The term "undue influence" has been defined in the courts of New Jersey as "mental, moral or physical exertion which has destroyed the free agency of a testator by preventing the testator from following the dictates of his own mind and will and accepting instead the domination and influence of another." Haynes v. First Nat'l State Bank of N.J., 87 N.J. 163, 175-76 (1981). In other words, generally speaking, to successfully prove undue influence, the challenger of a will must demonstrate that the decisions of the decedent set forth in the challenged will are not actually those of the decedent, but of another person who in some way manipulated the decedent.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty and Contested Estate Administration

When a person is appointed as a trustee, executor or administrator that person is empowered with control over certain specified assets. That person is also considered to be a “fiduciary”, who is charged with the responsibility of properly maintaining and managing the assets under their control and of following the terms of the will, codicil, trust agreement or statute that appointed them as a fiduciary. When a fiduciary fails to follow through on his or her obligations in some way, or there is a dispute as to what the specific obligations of that fiduciary are, a person with an interest in the assets under the fiduciary’s control may bring an action against him. Examples of such actions are:

  • Demands for accounting
  • Disputes as to the distribution of assets or money to beneficiaries
  • Disputes among fiduciaries or co-fiduciaries
  • Actions to protect the rights of a beneficiary or beneficiaries
  • Actions to obtain the resignation or removal of a trustee, executor or administrator

The Benefit of Consulting with a Probate Lawyer Regarding Your Estate or Trust Issue 

While many disputes over estates and trusts are best resolved short of litigation, some disputes require court involvement pursuant to state law, and others are too acrimonious to be resolved. Particularly because disputes over wills, codicils, trust agreements, powers of attorney, living wills and health care directives typically involve the death or impending death of a loved one, strong emotions can prevent the settlement of matters before litigation. No matter the situation, in order to chart a course forward and address a conflict, we consult closely with our clients to understand their concerns and motivations.

If you are facing an estate dispute in New Jersey and would like to consult with an attorney, we welcome you to contact the probate lawyers of the Law Office of Bart J. Klein at (973) 763-6060, info@bartjkleinlaw.com, or by completing our online contact form.

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