As a beneficiary, you have every right to protect family assets from estate hijackers. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is true in many areas of life. In estate litigation, it rings particularly spot-on.
A relatively small number of estates become fodder for litigation in California Superior Courts. Estate litigation is not a death knell for a family estate when experienced probate and trust litigators seek an early resolution over a protracted war. That said, estate litigation is expensive and given the choice between prevention and cure most intelligent people would choose prevention.
While estate disputes span the gamut from false documents and financial elder abuse to fraudulent transfers, there are a number of common scenarios that repeat themselves. Among them:
- Joint Tenancy : A parent may freely choose or by undue influence transfer personal assets into joint tenancy with a child or third party. Joint tenancy properties pass free of probate immediately to the survivor joint tenant when the other joint tenant dies. This may work well - then again it may create complications. Sometime a parent will put a child on accounts or property as a joint tenant with (unwritten) instructions that the asset is to be shared with his/her brothers and sisters when the parent dies. When this works all is well. When it doesn't the cheated parties lawyer up and the estate litigation is "off to the races."
- Automatic Inheritance Transfers (Non Probate Transfers: Automatic inheritance devices include joint tenancies, beneficiary designations in life insurance policies, retirement account beneficiary designations and pay-on-death or transfer-on-death accounts. Again, when these work well, they work well, when they don't there are negative ramifications from an inequitable result- "Brenda got all of dad's $100,000 IRA and I got his $2000 checking account." Let your imagination go on and it won't take long to see the problems with some automatic inheritance arrangements.
- Incomplete or Unfunded Trusts: It is one thing to have a trust with assets in it (real property, bank accounts, securities, business interests) and an entirely different thing to have a nice-looking signed trust document with absolutely nothing in the trust. If you go to the trouble to make a trust, then make the effort to transfer important assets into the trust.
- Divorce: Unchanged beneficiary designations in bank accounts, securities accounts, and life insurance policies may create havoc for an estate plan. California has special rules regarding such events but both the rules and the facts of each case make disputes between the decedent's heirs and his or her former spouse ripe for controversy. We have litigated these types of cases where our clients are convinced that his/her former spouse never wanted to remove the surviving spouse's name from an account or life insurance policy and the decedent's children are as equally convinced that dad/mom just forgot to make the change. The end result - litigation likely followed by a mediated settlement or day of trial hallway resolution. The better choice - if you really want your ex spouse to inherit an account or be the beneficiary on a life insurance policy make your wishes clear after the divorce.
Life is full of surprises. If everything were always perfect we wouldn't need car warranties, vaccination shots, airbags or doctors. Well we know that we have hiccups and struggles in life - we all do - and when those difficulties involve a disputed estate call us at Hackard Law. (916) 313-3030. We've had our own share of problems and challenging life experiences. We understand the how and why of trust, estate and probate disputes. Let our experience and commitment to legal excellence assist you.