California Estate and Trust Mediation Attorneys

Resolving Estate and Trust Disputes Without the Time and Expense of Litigation

There are many ways to resolve any legal claim. The parties to probate matters-as with those involved in disputes in corporate, tax, divorce, and other fields of law-can also resolve their disagreements through mediation. Mediating a resolution with an estate administrator or trustee can save the significant time and expense of litigation. The experienced Los Angeles probate litigators at Hackard Law serve all of California (including Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento, and San Francisco). They can help those involved with a trust or estate determine the best method of resolving their disputes.

The Many Types of Legal Disputes Which Can Arise Over the Administration of a Trust or Estate

The administration of an estate can lead to many different types of disputes. Heirs may contend with one another over the disposition of property and funds. They may also find themselves at odds with an estate administrator over the same issues. Similarly, the beneficiaries of a trust may find themselves disagreeing with a trustee or each other over the disbursement of dividends.

Common areas of contention in estate administration include:

  • Second marriages and subsequent families. Because first, second, and subsequent marriages create families whose only relation to one another is the person who died, these groups of people are especially likely to disagree over the disposition of an estate. These disputes can cover everything from selling real estate to omitting stepchildren as heirs and the handling of the decedent's remains.
  • Subsequent revisions to estate planning documents. The person who makes the will (the "testator") can amend or revoke it until the time the testator dies. The person who establishes a trust (the "grantor") can also revoke and amend certain trusts. These later documents can lead to questions about the order in which the changes occurred. If, for example, a will has multiple codicils (or amendments) with conflicting provisions, the one made last will generally control the estate. This can also raise questions about the circumstances in which a codicil was made, or a will or trust was revoked. If the change was not done under the testator or grantor's own free will, beneficiaries could challenge it in court.
  • The office of executor or trustee. Also called an estate administrator, the executor is the person the court appoints to resolve the assets and liabilities of the estate. (In circumstances where the decedent also had legal claims, such as a personal injury lawsuit, this person may also function as a personal representative.) Because this person is granted a wide range of authority over the estate, the role can breed resentment among family members and other heirs. If the executor is not able to remain impartial in the administration of the estate, the heirs must petition the court to reprimand or remove the executor. Similar difficulties can arise in the administration of a trust. There, beneficiaries may have to petition the court to remove the trustee and replace them with an impartial trust administrator.
  • Duress, coercion, and undue influence. These defenses refer to situations in which the actions of a third party overcome a person's will. When these actions cause a person to change the disposition of property (such as in a will, trust, or other estate planning documents), the potential beneficiaries can challenge the validity of the document in the probate court. Particularly when only one family member has served as a caregiver, other family members may question the influence exerted by the caregiver over the person who made a will or trust.

The Time and Expense of Litigation Probate Claims

All of these scenarios present important legal issues that can damage the property rights of an heir or beneficiary. More importantly, they also raise the possibility that an executor or trustee is not honoring the wishes of the person who initially formed the trust or will. Heirs, therefore, must hold executors accountable (and beneficiaries must hold trustees accountable) for meeting their legal obligations.

Unfortunately, this process can consume a lot of time and money. The formal litigation process begins with a petition to the probate court. The parties must then engage in a discovery process to examine the evidence that supports each side's claims. This often consists of presenting the estate planning documents, the testimony of the witnesses to these documents, and occasionally photographic or videographic evidence of the decedent's mental state at the time a will was made. (If they are available, trust grantors may testify about their own mental status.) After completing the discovery process, the parties will attempt to negotiate a settlement. If they cannot, they will incur the time and expense of a trial. The court will then decide the issue for them.

An Attorney Can Help Mitigate Probate Claims to Achieve Faster, More Cost-Effective Results

As in other areas of the law, the probate courts of California are making increased use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods. One of the most common methods is mediation. This process involves the help of a third-party mediator who discusses the dispute with each party. The mediator then attempts to negotiate a settlement between the parties. Unlike a judge in a court, the mediator has no authority to issue orders or force a settlement. Rather, the mediator is there to facilitate the settlement that the parties were unable to reach by themselves.

An experienced probate litigator will work effectively with a mediator to seek the fairest resolution of a dispute. In many cases, this is a cost-benefit analysis of the expense of trial versus the likelihood of success at trial (and whether that potential success outweighs the expense). The knowledgeable probate litigators at Hackard Law have extensive experience working with mediators, opposing counsel, and clients to work out fair solutions without incurring unnecessary litigation costs.

The Right Probate Litigator to Resolve Your Trust or Estate Dispute

You may have many legal grounds for challenging the formation of a trust or will, or the administration of a trust or estate. The experienced California probate litigators at Hackard Law can help you determine the best method of resolving your dispute. Call (916) 313-3030 from Santa Clara or (213) 357-5200 from Los Angeles (or from anywhere in California), or write to us online, to schedule your free consultation with one of our probate litigation attorneys. We help people all over California explore every potential challenge and option for mediating or litigating these claims and find the best method of fairly resolving them.