Understanding Estate, Trust, Probate And Inheritance Litigation In Terms Of "Pie"

I love pie, and it's probably my favorite type of dessert.  I have fond childhood memories of my Grandmother making fantastic butterscotch meringue pies whenever we would travel to her house back when I grew up in Oklahoma.  Every Fall I look forward to eating pecan pie, and I can cook a pretty good one using a recipe and method that I read about in Southern Living magazine many years ago.  In my opinion, cakes, cookies and other desserts pale in comparison to a big slice of pie accompanied by a big scoop of Blue Bell ice cream (or Arkansas-based Yarnell's).  

That said, I find that when talking to clients it is often helpful to explain estate, trust, probate and inheritance litigation and disputes  in terms of "pie."  For example, sometimes the question is "who gets a piece of the pie?"  There could be a conflict   about who the beneficiaries are in a will or trust.  Or, if there was not a will or trust a Court could need to determine who the deceased's heirs are for purposes of intestate succession.  If a will or trust sought to exclude someone and they challenge it, the enforcement or non-enforcement of that term could dictate whether or not they get a piece of the pie at all.

Sometimes the issue revolves around "how big a slice does everyone get?"  For example, a will or trust often leaves different types or percentages of property to different people or entities.  In an intestate estate where the deceased did not leave a will or trust (or perhaps those documents were found to be invalid), one's status as a surviving spouse, surviving child, surviving parent, surviving sibling, surviving grandchild, etc. will determine the size and extent of one's piece of the pie.

Other times the question involves "what is even in the pie?"  What I mean by  that is that property formally conveyed to a trust should pass through the trust, but property not conveyed to that trust will pass outside the trust (typically through the estate).  Likewise, whether or not an estate is formally opened or a trust even exists, some property can automatically pass by beneficiary designations (IRA's, life insurance, etc.) or operation of law (transfer on death accounts, joint tenants with right of   survivorship accounts, etc.) instead of passing to or through a trust, estate, etc.  

Finally, occasionally the concern focuses upon "whether anyone ate some (or all) of the pie before it got sliced  up?"  In other words, if there was a misappropriation of monies or assets the dispute may necessarily be primarily concerned with (1) attempting to investigate, locate and recover the missing property, and (2) holding whomever took it civilly or criminally responsible, if appropriate.  

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

UPDATED: Practical Help For Estate Administrators (Executors) & Trust Administrators (Trustees)

One of my very first posts on this blog generally discussed the legal duties of trustees under Arkansas law.  While that post summarized some of the more abstact legal principles at issue, a much more common question posed to me and other attorneys at dinner parties and elsewhere is what are the practical duties of trustees (and, similarly, the practical duties of estate executors, a.k.a. personal representatives). 

With this in mind, a couple of days before Christmas while doing some last-minute book shopping at Barnes & Noble for some friends, I happened to come across one of the best little books that I have seen on the subject.   Specifically, I was somewhat surprised to discover that "Estate & Trust Administration For Dummies" is a great resource for lay persons charged with the responsibility of serving as trustee for a trust or executor for an estate.  Even though I am historically the not-so-proud purchaser of multiple "Dummies" books on various mundane topics which I am too embarrassed to detail here, I must admit that I did not expect much substance when I first cracked open this text on the sparsely-populated "Law" aisle at B&N.  However, much to my surprise there was a tremendous amount of solid, easily understandable information there that---if utilized---should help any trustee or executor more ably and easily perform their duties and reduce the likelihood of future estate, trust or probate litigation. 

So, if you're a current or future fiduciary and have a bookstore gift card that you need to burn through, consider heading over to the probably-vacant leather chairs next to the Law section at B&N and checking out this book.  Considering the expense of this type of litigation, it might be the best 15 bucks that you'll ever spend. 

In closing, thanks for checking out the "Wealth Wars" blog over the first 3-4 months of its existence.  I wish you a happy and prosperous 2010.     

UPDATE:  The Arkansas Bar Association's website also has a free publication that may come in handy as well:  Handbook For Personal Representatives In Arkansas.  It is more of a very broad overview than anything else, but is still helpful since it is Arkansas-specific. 

Newly-Discovered Assets In Old Estate Result In New Litigation

A recent decision from the Arkansas Court of Appeals in Ellingsen v. King, 2009 Ark. 655 (October 7, 2009) illustrates how some long-forgotten but newly-discovered property can often send family members and creditors scrambling for their piece of the pie.  This interesting case involved Mr. McAlexander, who died in 1988 a resident of Shelby County, Tennessee.  An domiciliary probate estate was opened in Tennessee, and an ancillary probate estate was opened in Arkansas.  Mr. McAlexander's creditors did not file a claim against the ancillary estate in Arkansas, and its known assets (a fractional mineral interest to 85 acres of land in Conway County, Arkansas) were transferred to the Tennessee estate, such that the Arkansas estate closed in 1990.  In 1991, a Tennessee probate court concluded that the estate was insolvent and approved a plan of distribution to the estate's three creditors (the United States of America [60%], a bank [20%], and Mr. McAlexander's widow [20%]), before the estate was closed in 1996. 

A decade went by and in 1996 it was discovered that Mr. McAlexander had actually also held an interest in the mineral rights to approximately 4800 additional acres of land in Conway County, Arkansas, which everyone in Arkansas now knows is in the heart of the booming Fayetteville Shale natural gas play.  The ancillary estate in Arkansas was reopened but none of the creditors filed a claim.  In 2007 the Arkansas trial court authorized the executor of the estate to execute an oil and gas lease that included a cash bonus in excess of $1,000,000.00. 

At that point, of course, it appears that people came out of the woodwork to claim the money.  Specifically, the executor asked the trial court to determine the rights and interests of the creditors who had filed claims agains the Tennessee estate.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the creditors, with the end result being that Mr. McAlexander's five daughters receiving nothing under the trial court's order.  On appeal, the Arkansas Court of Appeals noted that while there was no evidence to indicate that the creditors properly presented their claims pursuant to Arkansas law, under Arkansas law when an estate is deemed insolvent it is still possible in some circumstances for such creditors to be paid a portion of their claim.  While the Tennessee court had long ago held that the estate was insolvent, that finding was made before the assets at issue were discovered such that the Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's summary judgment for factual findings as to the solvency of the estate in light of the newly-discovered assets.

I cannot help but think that in the coming years we will see many more stories like this, as people dust off old deeds and other documents only to discover that they possess mineral rights in North-Central Arkansas land that they never dreamed would become a profit-producing property.