A hit song from the 1980s warned us that “money changes everything.” Sadly, nowhere do we see this played out in real life more so than in disputes over inheritances between family members and other would-be heirs of a recently deceased individual. Well-intentioned people, including brothers, sisters, parents, children, cousins, friends, co-workers or business partners (and in some cases, less-well intentioned people) that may have gone their whole lives without a dispute with one another can suddenly find themselves fighting over property, savings, and other assets that each believed was promised to, intended for, or rightfully owed to them.
Relationships can be soured for life and families torn apart over inheritance disputes, not to mention the fact that it may be unclear whether the wishes of the recently deceased person are properly being honored or not. The good news is that working now with an experienced wills and estates attorney, such as the team at Christopher B. Johnson Law Office in Pasadena, can greatly reduce the risk of inheritance disputes among your intended heirs and others in the future — and, in the case of a current or imminent inheritance dispute over a recently deceased person’s estate, a knowledgeable attorney can help facilitate solutions to resolve such disputes efficiently while protecting the interests of rightfully deserving parties.
Common Causes of Inheritance Disputes
There are a number of common causes of inheritance disputes. First off, when a person dies without a valid will, family members, friends, co-workers and others may fight over whether certain property was promised to them. Regardless of the legal validity of these claims, parties who feel they are owed, or parties who are simply out to make a quick buck at the expense of those who truly are deserving of the inheritance, can tie up the probate proceedings for months and years (causing great legal cost to the deserving parties) and may even strong-arm deserving parties into handing over inheritances regardless of whether the decedent intended to gift the property to them or whether a probate court would award them the property.
Simply creating a will, however, does not mean that intended beneficiaries will avoid inheritance disputes after the testator’s death. In recent years, the popularity of do-it-yourself wills and estates kits has grown, and cut-rate, inexperienced lawyers often advertise their bargain-basement rates for creating a will. Not all wills are created equal, however, and those that are improperly drafted or that are vague, incomplete, and not drafted to address future contingencies may result in the same types of lengthy inheritance disputes that might have come if there had been no will at all, and may even create disputes where otherwise there might not have been one.
Reducing the Risk of Inheritance Disputes
In California there are specific requirements that a will must meet in order for it to be valid under California law and therefore effective upon the testator’s death. Even a will that on its face meets the basic requirements for validity in California may nevertheless be subject to claims of undue influence (meaning that a person who hoped to inherit property from a decedent improperly influenced the testator to include himself or herself in the will), fraud, or duress, especially where the will was drafted without the involvement of an experienced, reputable wills and estates attorney. Furthermore, a probate court will look for specific, legally effective language in determining whether a certain individual was intended as a beneficiary, as well as in determining exactly what property was intended to be devised to that beneficiary. In essence, the more expertly drafted the will, the less likely there will be parties being able to carry on a legal dispute over who is to get what property.
Finally, circumstances may change after a will is drafted, both with regard to the property and beneficiaries affected by the will. For example, what should happen if an intended beneficiary dies before the decedent? Or, what should happen if a bequest of stock loses its value or a stake in a family business is sold before the testator’s death? These situations can cause disputes after a testator’s death, but working with a knowledgeable inheritance attorney, such as Christopher B. Johnson, can help you address those issues before they arise.
Resolving an Existing Inheritance Dispute
Where a testator of a will has passed and there is an existing inheritance dispute, there are options for resolving the dispute in as efficient a manner as possible, while protecting your interests and the interests of loved ones and minimizing acrimony. Simply having the interested parties meet with an experienced wills and estates attorney who can explain the legal effects of the will and/or probate proceeding may reduce tension, as the attorney can help those parties understand what the will intends and how the law will treat their interests, if any, in the decedent’s estate.
The attorney may also help guide interested parties through alternative dispute resolution matters such as mediation or binding arbitration. In mediation, the parties will meet with a neutral third-party in a non-courtroom environment where the mediator will hear from the interested parties and guide them toward solutions that will provide for their interests under the law and steer them toward a compromise which the parties can choose to agree to by singing a binding agreement. With arbitration, the process is similar, except that the parties will generally agree ahead of time to bind themselves to whatever solution the arbitrator reaches regarding the inheritance dispute. Arbitration is a more costly solution, as arbitrators are often former judges, but can be the proper solution when the likelihood for mediation resulting in a voluntary compromise is low.