An Overview of Possible Estate Disputes
When a person passes on, it is unfortunately common that issues arise with respect to their Will, for example, its validity, and whether the executor is carrying out its administration properly. There are many ways in which a dispute may arise, our experienced lawyers are here to help you navigate your legal situations in Toronto and throughout York Region with the professional counsel you’ll need:
One common type of dispute that arises on a person’s passing is whether the Will drafted is valid. A Will may be challenged and declared invalid for a variety of reasons, including non-compliance with the Succession Law Reform Act (e.g., two witness signatures from non-interested parties are generally required for a Will). Other common reasons for Will challenges include lack of testamentary capacity by the testator when making or revoking a Will, a lack of understanding of knowledge and contents of a Will, or ambiguity resulting in multiple possible interpretations of the Will, as discussed below.
Trust & Will Interpretation
Disputes sometimes arise in relation to the proper interpretation of a trust or Will. As precise as we try to be with language, sometimes documents drafted by non-professionals are more susceptible to multiple interpretations. Even where a lawyer has drafted a trust or Will, a beneficiary or interested party could seek to argue for a second interpretation, even though, on its face, it appears relatively clear.
Where a Will is clear and unambiguous, issues can still arise with respect to the executor or trustee in handling the assets, even after a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee has been issued by the court and trusts have been set up. A beneficiary may believe the estate trustee is mishandling the estate by not protecting assets (e.g., not liquidating risky investments), wasting assets (e.g., elaborate funeral arrangements) or distributing assets before all the debts are paid. Another possibility is when an inappropriate value is assigned to a property in the trust in question and errors result in the distribution. Further, the beneficiaries may believe that an executor or trustee is taking more compensation for the role than is warranted.
Compelling or Challenging a Passing of Accounts
There are several reasons why an executor may be forced to formally or informally provide an accounting of all assets in his or her estate administration. By law an estate trustee must seek approval of estate accounts approved from the court where:
• there are minor beneficiaries;
• there are beneficiaries who lack capacity;
• there are unascertained beneficiaries;
• a beneficiary challenges the executor’s actions; or
• a beneficiary challenges the handling of the estate accounts.
A beneficiary may challenge the executor’s actions if he or she believes that the actions do not align with the requirements of the Will or if estate assets are improperly distributed.
Lack of Testamentary Capacity
Disputes are increasingly arising with respect to capacity of a testator of a Will or grantor of a Power of Attorney, even while the individual in question is still alive. The argument may arise that the testator or grantor did not have the requisite mental capacity to make or revoke a Will or Power of Attorney at the time when the document was signed.
Power of Attorney Disputes
Determining who is the rightful attorney of a Power of Attorney may be called into question if multiple individuals have been named during the grantor’s life. It could also happen that an attorney is abusing a Power of Attorney or simply does not understand his or her obligations, resulting in neglect of the person who granted the Power of Attorney or a depletion of his or her wealth.
Unjust enrichment claims can arise in a variety of contexts, including in estate litigation. An unjust enrichment claim essentially means that a person has bestowed a benefit on another person from which that person has advantaged, and where he or she is unfairly deprived, despite conferring the benefit.
Information that may be pertinent in assessing whether unjust enrichment has occurred includes whether the claimant provided benefits to the defendant, whether benefits were provided at the expense of the claimant, if there was compensation for the benefits and if the defendant actually benefitted in an unfair or unjust manner.
As an example, in the estates context, an unjust enrichment claim may arise where an adult family member or child cares for a parent, incurs time and expense caring for the parent during their life, but then is left out of a Will entirely. Because adult children are not protected by the Succession Law Reform Act (i.e., the legislation does not give them any default remedy for being left out of a Will), an unjust enrichment claim might be sought for compensation from the estate.
Disputes may arise in the estates context if a person exerts undue influence over a testator when he or she makes a Will or over a grantor when he or she makes a Power of Attorney. For example, a person who is determined to be a beneficiary and/or executor of a Will may coerce the testator to behave in a way that benefits that person, using excessive pressure, lies, emotional manipulation, or even false promises. Undue influence does not necessarily mean that violence or threats occurred, though the claim can be more difficult to confirm where these factors are not present. It is always wise to speak to an experienced lawyer if you want to challenge a Will or Power of Attorney on the basis that the individual signing it was unduly influenced.
Donnell Law Group Can Help You With Estate Litigation throughout York Region
If you are a financially interested party and wish to challenge the validity of a Will, an executor’s actions, or if you believe you have been unfairly excluded as a beneficiary to a Will, speak to an estate litigation lawyer serving Toronto and all of York Region. Our estate lawyers are available at 905-476-9100.