Avoiding Estate, Trust, Probate & Inheritance Litigation?

As one who largely makes his living assisting fiduciaries and beneficiaries in disputes arising out of the contested disposition of a deceased person's money and property, it is probably not in my personal economic interest to dispense advice on how to avoid estate, trust, probate & inheritance litigation.  After all, such litigation is how I pay the bills and put food on the table.

However, first and foremost as an attorney I am in the business of trying to help people with their legal problems.  I am therefore reminded of what President Abraham Lincoln, a former lawyer himself, once said:  "Discourage litigation.  Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can.  Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser -- in fees, expenses, and waste of time.  As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.  There will still be business enough."

With that admonition in mind, in researching an issue lately I came across the following linked article written by a Texas lawyer and published a few years ago by the American Bar Association:  "A Message To Clients:  Avoiding Probate Court Litigation."   It contains a good summary of situations which are susceptible to these types of disputes (dysfunctional families, subsequent marriages, sloppy or stale estate planning,  etc.).  It also includes solid suggestions for proactively preventing such disputes from arising in the first place.  

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.

Petitions For Instructions And Declarations Of Rights---Not All Trust Litigation Is Necessarily Nasty

Frequently trust litigation stems from a heated dispute between trustees and beneficiaries, or co-trustees who cannot agree on the trust administration, or beneficiaries who cannot agree on their respective rights under a trust instrument, or other disagreements between various parties incident to a trust.  When such disputes cannot be resolved amicably by the parties themselves, with or without the assistance of legal counsel, sometimes the only practical recourse is to file suit and let a judge or jury decide who should prevail depending upon the facts,  circumstances and evidence. 

With this in mind, Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-201(b)  does not mandate continuing court supervision of trusts.  Rather, a court may intervene in the administration of a trust whenever it is asked to by an “interested person or as provided by law.”  Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-201(a).  Such judicial proceedings involving a trust “may relate to any matter involving the trust’s administration, including a request for instructions and an action to declare rights.”  Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-201(c) (emphasis added). 

In sum, occasionally trust-related judicial proceedings do not involve an alleged breach of trust, breach of fiduciary duty, misappropriation of assets, etc.  That's a good thing because such disputes---often involving family members fighting over money---can turn into some of the ugliest and most contentious wealth wars imaginable. 

Rather, petitions for instructions and requests for declaratory judgments---such as the ones contemplated in Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-201(c)---are typically less heated because theoretically they involve an innocuous request that the court merely provide instructions or guidance to the trustee or beneficiaries. Perhaps the proceeding stems from an alleged ambiguity in the trust terms, maybe there is a question regarding which beneficiaries are supposed to receive trust income or principal, or possibly the court is simply being asked to declare the rights and obligations of various individuals associated with the trust.  

While these matters can still be adversarial in nature, they are usually not the classic battles in which someone is claiming that another party necessarily engaged in intentional fraud or other wrongdoing.  Accordingly, when appropriate this type of proceeding should be considered as an option whenever there is a need for court intervention in a situation which does not necessarily rise to the level of a full-blown  "divorce on steroids," as we sometimes call the nastiest of the inheritance-related disputes in which we are frequently asked to become involved. 

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.

 

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.

Presentation At The 2016 Arkansas Bar Association Annual Meeting

Today one of my law partners, Pat James, and I will be privileged to make a presentation at the Arkansas Bar Association Annual Meeting in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where over 1,200 lawyers and judges congregate every June for 4 days of continuing education seminars,  meetings, and socializing.   The title of our presentation is---not surprisingly given that you are reading this blog---"WEALTH WARS:   Arkansas  Estate, Trust, Probate And Inheritance Litigation."

The hour-long presentation is designed to be a broad overview, for the general practitioner, of numerous topics arising in this area of law.   For an A to Z listing of the topics to be discussed, inclusive of some written materials containing a checklist of common claims and causes of action; a checklist of common defenses; an exemplary case theme (the “fraud triangle”); a lengthy list of Arkansas statutes frequently arising in litigated estate and trust matters; and citations to a few helpful general and Arkansas-specific secondary materials,  please click on the following link:    Written Materials For June 2016 CLE Presentation 

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.

Brief Thoughts On Claims Of Undue Influence

As stated in my previous post regarding the capacity of a testator to execute a will or trust, the two concepts are closely related.  For example, incapacity relates to invalidation of a will, trust, deed, etc. because of the testator’s own deficiencies (typically mental impairment).  Undue influence, however, is when the will, trust, deed, etc. may be invalidated by the actions of others because they allegedly exercised such a degree of influence and power over the testator thatthey were induced to act by something other than free will.

As a general matter, the less testamentary capacity that one possesses, the less proof of undue influence will be necessary.  A presumption of undue influence may be triggered by a confidential relationship between the testator and someone who is receiving a benefit from the document, such that the burden of proof can shift to the proponent of the document to prove that there has in fact been no undue influence.  Unless there is “procurement” involved, in Arkansas the proponent merely has the burden of proving no undue influence by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not, as opposed to a higher standard such as beyond a reasonable doubt).

Obviously influence is ever-present and we are constantly influencing others to take certain actions.  This is especially true in the context of family and other close relationships.  However, mere influence doesn’t necessarily equate to taking advantage of someone.

Accordingly, while a testator may be legitimately influenced by his children, for example, the influence may go too far if the kids dictate or control the testator.  Likewise, the mere existence of a confidential relationship between the testator and the beneficiary, or a close and affectionate relationship, may not in and of itself constitute undue influence although it can in some instances have the effect of shifting the burden of proof.

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.

Brief Thoughts On Claims Of Incapacity

People often question whether a deceased person was mentally capable of executing or changing a will or trust.  Perhaps the person was suffering from dementia at the time.  The legal question involved in these situations is typically whether the decedent had the requisite “testamentary capacity.”  Testamentary capacity has generally been deemed to mean sufficient mental ability to (1) understand and remember, without prompting, the extent and condition of the testator’s property; (2) understand the “natural objects of their bounty;” and (3) understand to whom the property is being given and on what terms. 

Testamentary capacity is not a particularly high state of mental capacity, but it can be rebutted in some instances by evidence of Alzheimer’s Disease, severe forms of dementia, severe illness, intoxication, etc.  These conditions need to have actually existed at the time of execution of the instrument in question.  For example, the mere fact that mild dementia is diagnosed years before the execution of the instrument does not necessarily mean that the testator lacked capacity when they executed their will or trust, because even a lucid interval of capacity (and people suffering from dementia often have “good days” and “bad days”) can be deemed sufficient.    

Capacity issues are very fact-intensive determinations, and lack of capacity is often pretty difficult to prove.  This is why capacity claims are often coupled with “undue influence” claims, which are often related, frequently alleged in the addition or in the alternative, and sometimes easier to prove.  Undue influence will be discussed in my next post. 

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.

Demographic Trends Suggest More Estate, Trust And Probate Litigation In The Decades To Come

I have long been interested in demographic trends, emerging technologies, cultural changes, and shifting societal patterns.  For example, 20+ years ago when I was in college I read Alvin and Heidi Toffler's  "War And Anti-War," which while a bit dated now predicts how future wars will be fought (but with an eye toward peace and avoiding such conflicts).   Similarly, about 5 years ago I read George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast For The 21st Century,"  which was an eye-opening look at how our  nation and world may likely look in the years and decades to come.  I highly recommend either book for some fascinating reading, and it will be interesting to someday see how accurate or inaccurate their predictions were.

 Then,  a couple weeks ago I came across a very interesting article by a Georgia attorney named John J. Scroggin, in Wealth Strategies Journal,  which focused in particular upon 30 positive and negative trends that will impact estate planning over the next several decades:  "Where Is The Estate Planning Profession Going?"    While I focus much of my law practice upon estate, trust and probate litigation---as opposed to estate planning and drafting of wills, trusts, and the like---the article still addressed my areas of interest and I thought I would share a couple excerpts here.  Better yet, lawyers and laypersons   should take the time to read the entire article  which not only encompasses great analysis but also contains good references to other articles, checklists, outlines, etc.

               For example, with regard to estate and trust litigation in general Mr. Scroggin opines that:

               "(9) Estate and Trust Litigation. As a result of the combination of poorly drafted  documents, dysfunctional families, incompetent fiduciaries, greedy heirs, inadequate  planning and poorly prepared fiduciaries, estate litigation has been booming in the last  few decades. This growth will continue.

               One consequence of the increased litigation will be an increased effort by both individual and institutional fiduciaries to make sure estate and trust instruments provide for strong  fiduciary protection. We should anticipate more protective provisions in fiduciary  instruments, including broader indemnity provisions for fiduciaries, modifications of the  normal fiduciary standards and investment polices, broader use of no contest clauses,  limited liability for delegated powers and limits (or increases) on disclosures to  beneficiaries. These changes will increase the need to create counter-balancing powers  designed to protect beneficiaries (e.g., a wider use of Trust Protectors and fiduciary  removal powers). As a result, there will be longer discussions with clients and the  complexity of the documents will increase."

               Related to the foregoing are Mr. Scroggin's thoughts on avoiding estate and trust litigation altogether, through conflict minimization:

               "(10) Conflict Minimization. The corollary to estate and trust litigation is planning  designed to mitigate the potential sources of intra-family estate conflicts. According to  the Wealth Counsel 6th Annual Industry Trends Survey, the top motivation for doing  estate planning was to avoid the chaos and conflict among the client’s heirs. Many clients  have an abiding desire to establish structures which minimize the potential points of  conflict and provide a mechanism to resolve future family conflicts. Clients want to  dispose of assets in a manner designed to minimize family conflict - leaving a legacy of  relationships rather than a legacy of conflict. This is a growing part of the discussion with  clients and a part of their planning documents. Solutions include using personal property  disposition lists, looking at real or perceived conflicts of interest when appointing  fiduciaries, or passing the family business only to the children running the business. As  noted above, attorneys will need to spend more time talking with clients about providing  greater protections to fiduciaries and creating counterbalancing protections for heirs.

 Many individual fiduciaries agree to serve without fully understanding the potential  liabilities and conflict they may be inserting themselves into. Should attorneys provide written materials (perhaps signed by the client and the fiduciary) detailing the  responsibility of the fiduciary, the risk of conflict and the means by which the drafter has  tried to minimize those exposures? Should attorneys more thoroughly advise their clients  on the necessary skill   sets needed by their fiduciaries - instead of just accepting the  client's choices at face value?"

  In sum, as I have written before on this blog, American society is rapidly changing.  The Baby Boomers have begun retiring over the last many years and will continue to do so over the next 2-3 decades.  Large sums of wealth have been acquired and will be transferred to younger generations.  People are living longer, and the aging population will be less competent due to Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia which will lead to conflicts over whether a deceased person had the requisite capacity to execute a will or trust.  These and other trends strongly support the notion that there will be increasingly more estate, trust and probate litigation in the decades to come.

               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.

Apparent End To The Huguette Clark $300 Million Estate Battle

In a middle-of-the-night deal during jury selection of a New York trial, it appears that a settlement has been reached in the infamous Huguette Clark estate dispute.  You can read all about it at this link.  I had written about this over 3 years ago back in August 2010 at this link.  This litigation serves as a very interesting case study in undue influence allegations and other issues commonly associated with estate and trust disputes.  A more comprehensive overview of the stories, videos, and other coverage of this saga can be found at this link.          

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.

Random Odds And Ends

A couple of quick things before I head off to celebrate the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011:

(1) The Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog contained an interesting quote today from the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire, who lived about 300 years ago, which goes to show that the subject matter discussed in my own Blog is hardly new or novel:

"Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills."

---Voltaire, French author (1694 - 1778)

(2) A recent article cites a study by the Center For Retirement Research at Boston College for the proposition that Baby Boomers, who apparently have already inherited $2.4 trillion from older generations, are in line to inherit at least $8.4 trillion more.  In fact, according to a December 27, 2010 Associated Press article, starting in January more than 10,000 Baby Boomers a day will turn 65,  a trend that will continue for the next 19 years.  Given those numbers, one can only assume that the number of inheritance-related disputes will continue to rise as well.  

Best wishes for a Happy New Year!

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, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Mediation As An Alternative To Inheritance Litigation

Lawsuits are not the only way to resolve disputes, and arguably are not even the best way.  Litigation can be financially expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally tolling.  Especially in the context of estate, trust and probate litigation, the disputes often involve persons who know each other, including relatives, friends, and business associates.  Accordingly, in addition to the expenditure of money, time and emotions, litigation can sometimes involve harm to the relationships between the litigants. 

Because of the foregoing concerns, different types of alternative dispute resolution have been developed over the years.  One of these methods, in particular, is conducive to the issues arising in inheritance-related disputes.  Specifically, mediation generally involves a third party called a "mediator" who is specially trained to attempt to bring the adverse parties to a compromise and settle their differences.  Unlike the judge or jury, or an arbitrator, a mediator does not resolve the dispute for the parties but instead aims to facilitate a final resolution that the parties reach on their own.  There are many such mediators in Arkansas (e.g., Hamlin Dispute Resolution, ADR, Inc., etc.), and we have successfully used them in the past on behalf of our own clients.  A good article in the New York Times this weekend also discusses mediation in the elder law context. 

A simple fact is that the death of a loved one is already a stressful experience.  If, for example, that person's estate is perceived to not have been distributed in the manner in which that decedent intended (or perhaps in a way in which a would-be recipient originally anticipated it), long-simmering feuds can rise to the surface and minor misunderstandings can erupt into major conflicts.  Occasionally it's too late, but the relationships of the persons involved can frequently be maintained, and their disputes ultimately resolved,  by mediation.  Drawn-out court battles can be avoided or at least minimized, and the money and property in dispute can be preserved instead of exhausted on the litigation process.  Mediation is confidential as opposed to occurring in the public eye, can be scheduled by the parties at their convenience rather than subject to the limited openings in a Court's docket, and takes place in a neutral conference room rather than in an often-intimidating courtroom. 

Not every dispute is ideal or appropriate for mediation, but it can and should be considered as an alternative method of dispute resolution.  

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, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.