What are estate disputes?
Estate disputes primarily occur when the beneficiaries of a will or trust feel that they have been wronged by the executor, trustee, beneficiary, or another person interested in the estate. Estate contests require careful consideration of the probate process, duties of the executor(s) or trustee(s), real property laws, family history and dynamics, and practical considerations regarding the overall estate.
These cases are not limited to the multi-million dollar estates. In fact, many disputes arise in very modest estates or over the personal property of the deceased.
How do we approach estate disputes?
We understand that a majority of estate dispute cases involve disagreements between family members. The first step will be to resolve these issues in an amicable, but professional, manner. However, if reasonable actions cannot be taken outside of court - or if timely action is needed - we will aggressively assert your rights in formal proceedings. Knoxville Elder Law attorney Dustin S. Crouse has experience in representing both beneficiaries and executors in will contest actions in Probate and Chancery Court.
What is a will contest?
Will contests are the most common type of estate dispute. They typically involve the argument that the testator's last will was invalid because of a lack of capacity to create the will, undue influence in procuring the will from another family member, or through fraud that benefits a third party. The most common scenarios are: multiple competing wills are found (one of which drastically changes the distributions from the prior will), a will is created shortly before death and also limits the inheritance of an heir, or generally when any holographic, or hand-written, will is found.
Will contests are first addressed during the probate process. Depending on the type of probate opened, the heirs-at-law of the decedent may issue a challenge on the probated will. This will pause the probate administration. The probate court certify the contest for further proceedings in Chancery Court. These hearings will resolve the issues associated with the contest (e.g. competing wills, undue influence, etc.) before the will is probated and the estate administered.
What is a trust dispute?
Trusts disputes are similar to will disputes insofar that they involve an interested party disputing the validity, interpretation, or management of a particular testamentary document – a trust. Many cases involve a beneficiary of a trust disputing how a trustee is handling the administration of a trust. Issues such as self-dealing, partiality to some beneficiaries, or mismanagement of trust property by the trustee are common concerns in these cases.
Trusts are usually administered outside of a court’s oversight. This can cause protracted or mishandled administration due to the lack of a court’s reporting requirements. However, Tennessee law still guides the obligations of a trustee. A trustee has a duty to the trust and its beneficiaries – called a fiduciary duty. Plainly put, the trustee must act in good faith, perform their responsibilities with due diligence, and act with a duty of loyalty to the beneficiaries.
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