In Wills & Estates

The death of a loved one is a difficult time. This emotional period can be further complicated by inheritance disputes. These conflicts arise when beneficiaries disagree on the interpretation or validity of a will or the distribution of assets within an estate. 

The American Bar Association and estate planning lawyers indicate that roughly one-third of all probate cases involve some form of contention. Inheritance disputes are also a contentious facet of probate and business law. These conflicts can delay the probate process, inflict emotional strain on families, and incur substantial legal fees in a representation agreement. 

A 2019 study found that contested probate and estate administration cases can take an average of two years to resolve a family’s estate, with probate fees often exceeding $50,000. These figures indicate the financial burden disputes can impose on clients.  This also requires sufficient knowledge of an ‘estate attorney near me’ in estate law. 

Second Marriages and Blended Families

The presence of stepchildren, second spouses, and half-siblings is a complex matter in estate law, which requires the assistance of estate lawyers. Issues that can arise in an estate plan include:

  • Prenuptial agreements drafted before the second marriage may limit the surviving spouse’s inheritance rights. It can lead to conflicts with the biological children of the deceased from the first marriage.
  • Existing trusts established before the second marriage may benefit the first spouse’s children. It conflicts with the second spouse’s inheritance expectations.
  • In some jurisdictions like British Columbia, surviving spouses have an “elective share” right, which allows them to claim a statutory portion of the deceased’s estate regardless of the wills variation claim provisions. This can reduce the inheritance available for other beneficiaries, which sparks conflict.

Jointly Owned Property

Properties titled as joint ownership with rights of survivorship pass to the surviving joint business owner upon the first owner’s death. This can create conflict if the deceased intended for the asset to be part of the estate and distributed differently.

Lack of Testamentary Capacity

The validity of wills can be challenged if the testator lacks the mental competency to understand the nature and consequences of their actions when drafting the will. Factors that can raise concerns about testamentary capacity include:

  • A diagnosis of dementia, particularly in the later stages of the disease. It can cast doubt on the testator’s mental clarity when drafting wills.
  • If the testator was critically ill or under the influence of strong medication when the will was drafted, it may be contested on grounds of diminished capacity.

Debt and Liabilities

The existence of unknown or undisclosed debts within the estate can create conflict among beneficiaries. Issues that can arise include:

  • Beneficiaries are liable for the departed’s debts up to the value of the possessions they inherit. This can lead to legal matters if certain beneficiaries receive a substantial share of the estate and are exposed to a greater portion of the debt.
  • State laws normally dictate the order in which estate assets are used to pay off debts. If beneficiaries disagree with the prioritization of certain assets over others, this can trigger the contention process.

Executor Misconduct

The executor, the person entrusted with estate administration according to the will’s terms, has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of all beneficiaries. However, situations can arise where the executor’s actions are called into question:

  • If the executor is suspected of stealing funds or embezzlement from the business estate, this constitutes a serious breach of fiduciary duty. It can also lead to estate litigation and criminal charges.
  • Unreasonable delays in distributing assets to beneficiaries can raise concerns about the executor’s motives and trigger legal action.

Real-Life Cases of Estate Inheritance Conflicts

Canadian inheritance law, specifically in the province of British Columbia, provides a case study of how courts balance testamentary autonomy with the concept of moral obligations towards children in real estate law and other laws regarding estates. 

Tom v. Tang (2023)

Parties Involved Mrs. Tom, the deceased and her five children (Rose, Samsun, and three others).
Will’s Provisions Mrs. Tom’s revised will favoured Rose and Samsun, who provided primary health care during her final years (grant 42% of the estate). The remaining siblings received approximately 5% each.
Children’s Challenge The three excluded siblings contested the will. They argued for a more equitable distribution that reflected their contributions to the family’s financial well-being and care for their mother.
Legal Issues This case centred on the “Objective Judicious Parent Test” (established in Tataryn v. Tataryn Estate, 1994). This assesses a will-maker’s moral obligations based on what a reasonable parent would do in similar circumstances, considering contemporary societal norms.

Outcome

While acknowledging the rationale behind favouring Rose and Samsun, the court deemed the disparity excessive. Citing the children’s contributions and the objective test, the court ordered a revised wills and estate distribution to ensure a more balanced allocation among all siblings. The judgment respected Mrs. Tom’s wishes to some degree while upholding the principle of fairness.

Thompson (Re) (2023 BCSC 1591)

Parties Involved Susan Thompson (applicant), Gail Thompson (executor and sister), and their deceased mother (the estate’s deceased).
Allegations Susan Thompson challenged her sister Gail Thompson’s appointment as executor, citing a conflict of interest. Evidence suggested Gail’s actions “before and after [the deceased’s] death” favoured a specific beneficiary, raising concerns about her ability to remain neutral.
Legal Framework
  • The Supreme Court of British Columbia applied the Wills, Estates and Succession Act (WESA) 2009 and the Trustee Act 1996 to evaluate the existing power of the executor.
  • Previous case law established that “friction” between the executor and beneficiaries is not, in itself, sufficient grounds for removal.
Court’s Decision
  • The court acknowledged that a conflict of interest, with a conflict of duty, could constitute a “disabling conflict” justifying removal.
  • In this case, Gail’s prior actions against the estate exposed her to personal liability. It created a conflict of interest that could not be rectified.
  • The court removed Gail as executor and appointed an independent trustee.

Strategies to Minimize Inheritance Disputes

Good Drafted Will

A well-drafted will is one of the important estate documents, which serves as the cornerstone of any business succession planning and estate administration process. It clearly outlines the testator’s wishes for asset distribution. A good drafted will reduces ambiguity and potential misinterpretations that can ignite litigation or lawsuit.

Consult Estate Lawyers

Consulting with an estate planning lawyer (including a real estate lawyer Surrey) ensures your will adheres to legal formalities. A real estate lawyer Surrey can guide you through technicalities like testamentary capacity, tax planning, and the use of specific clauses (e.g., “no-contest” clauses that discourage challenges to the will). Our legal services extend beyond disputes in wills and estate, so you better discuss your concerns. 

Open Communication

Open and honest conversations with family members about your estate planning. Discuss the will’s provisions, asset allocation, and your reasoning behind important decisions to foster understanding and reduce conflicts.

Using Trusts for Distribution

Type  Description Benefits 

Testamentary Trusts

These trusts come into effect upon the testator’s death, which allows estates to be managed and distributed according to specific conditions.

A trust can ensure the spouse receives a steady income stream while preserving the inheritance.
Certain types of trusts, like irrevocable life insurance trusts (ILITs), can offer tax benefits for probate and estate administration.

Inter Vivos Trusts

These trusts are created during the testator’s lifetime.

By transferring assets to a trust, the testator can shield them from potential claims by creditors.
Certain government benefits have asset limitations. Placing assets in a trust can help individuals qualify for such benefits.

Careful Executor Selection

The executor should be someone who remains neutral and acts in the best interest of all beneficiaries. Effective communication with beneficiaries and estate lawyers ensures a smooth administration process.

Avoid Inheritance Conflicts with Reliable Estate Lawyers

Inheritance conflicts are complex and emotionally charged. By understanding your legal rights and the potential pitfalls, you can take steps to minimize conflict and protect your estates. For estate planning matters, representation agreements, real estate transactions, and other legal services, a property lawyer from a reputable law firm like Sidhu Legal can help manage your case. Secure the important documents today and learn the intricacies of family law to ensure fair and just asset distribution.

Frequently Asked Questions

My sibling and I disagree on the value of a property inherited in the will. Can this lead to a legal battle?

Yes. Disagreements about asset valuation are a common source of inheritance conflicts. In such cases, the court may appoint an appraiser to ascertain the fair market value (FMV) of the property. An estate planning attorney or property lawyer advises you on your rights and options for resolving such disagreements.

The executor named in the will seems to be favouring one beneficiary over others. What can I do?

If you suspect the executor is mismanaging assets or favouring a specific beneficiary, you can petition the court to have them removed. An estate litigation attorney or property lawyer guides you through this process and ensures your rights are protected.

I was left out of my parent’s will entirely. Do I have any legal recourse?

While wills generally supersede intestacy laws (which dictate distribution without a will), children do have some legal rights in certain jurisdictions. Depending on your location, you may be entitled to contest the will if you can prove it was invalid due to undue influence, lack of testamentary capacity (mental ability), or forgery.

Recent Posts
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt
child support lawyer