Estate disputes are legal conflicts that arise when an individual passes and their estate (property or other assets) is transferred to heirs. Those who oversee estate transfers, either an executor or, in some cases, a personal representative appointed by a probate court, may face questions about their interpretation of estate laws or the contents of a will.
Legal challenges to the estate distribution process could involve disputes between heirs and entities with claims to estate assets, such as debt holders. Estate disputes can include a variety of common and not-so-common disagreements that can be resolved in probate court and with the help of an expert estate lawyer to settle a loved one’s estate.
During the course of will or estate administration, beneficiaries may disagree over the administration of an estate, will, or trust. Those who wish to challenge the legality of wills, trusts, spousal inheritance, creditors claims, accountancy, and any breach of fiduciary duty can do so in some circumstances. Legal challenges are usually over conflicting interpretations of British Columbian estate law or the contents of a will.
Relatedly, beneficiaries may also dispute the actions of the administrator in the executor’s interpretation of estate law, the will, or their improper distribution of assets, whether that executor is a beneficiary of the estate or appointed as a personal representative.
Disputed Asset Transfers
Will or estate executors have a responsibility to deliver cash or assets to the heirs of an estate or trust. Executors are likely to need an estate plan—the process of determining how the transfer of assets and satisfying of debts will occur. BC law dictates the priority with which payments will be distributed (also sometimes called an “order of liabilities”). Beneficiaries or other parties with claims to an estate not outlined in a will or court instructions can dispute a distribution of assets in select cases.
Undue influence is a legal term used to describe the situation when someone overseeing estate transfers—typically the executor—is the subject of pressure from other beneficiaries or third parties to execute a will or estate without a will in a specific way, usually for financial gain.
It is important to note that there are different legal standards regarding the undue influence of an estate executor vs those dictating the undue influence of will authors. Undue influence of an executor can involve simple harassment, abuse, blackmail, or manipulation by beneficiaries, trustees, or third parties with the intent of affecting estate decisions.
However, when those doing the influencing have an inherent position of power over a living individual authoring a will—like in the case of a caretaker—they are subject to a burden of proof by the courts. These individuals are required to decisively prove they did not influence the will for personal gain.
To prove undue influence in British Columbia, victims or their representatives must prove:
- The victim was vulnerable
- The influencer engaged in tactics in an attempt to influence the will or estate administration execution
- The influencer had some degree of formal or informal authority over the executor
- The outcome was inequitable (unfair)
Removal of Trustee or Executor
Executors are individuals empowered to administer estates or wills. They are most often trusted family members, accountants, or lawyers. When disputes arise regarding an executor or trustee failing to exercise their administrative and fiduciary duties, or demonstrating clear conflicts of interest in their settlement of an estate, they may be removed. Simple disagreements between beneficiaries and executors are often not enough to remove the executor. Nor are suspicions of beneficiary favouritism by the executor.
Executors are usually only removed when engaging in misconduct or acting negligently in their administration of the estate. They may also be removed when they otherwise lack the capacity to carry out their duties as executors.
Ownership of Property and Jointly Held Assets
During the course of a will or estate settlement, questions regarding ownership of property may arise. In some cases, it may be unclear to what extent the deceased was entitled to pass on a property. In others, it could be unclear who the heirs of a property are, especially if that property was owned jointly by the deceased or was to be liquidated to satisfy the deceased’s creditors. These may also occur when there is no clear documentation or there are conflicting provisions in a will or trust. In some cases, an heir may be entitled to ownership of a property but is obligated to share the commercial or financial gain accrued by that property.
In British Columbia, those with potential claims to a will may have the right to contest it, prior to or during the probate process. Parties with grounds to contest a will typically include:
- Those who will benefit from having a will declared invalid
- Beneficiaries of a previous will or version of a will
The parties that are legally permitted to contest a will include beneficiaries and heirs. These are often children, spouses, and those who have lived in a marriage-like relationship for more than two years, including same-sex individuals.
Valid grounds for contesting a will include lack of mental capacity, undue influence, fraud, or non-compliance with the law by will and estate representatives. Family members traditionally covered by wills can request British Columbia courts issue a variance repurposing assets in the case when these individuals are left out of a will.
A variation can be requested up to 180 days from when the grant of probate or administration is issued. Contesting on the grounds of undue influence or diminished mental capacity must occur within two years.
When a person dies without a will or their will is declared invalid by the probate court, their estate is distributed according to intestacy laws. In British Columbia, intestate laws are mandated by the Wills, Estates and Successions Act passed in 2014. When the deceased has a spouse and descendants, estate property transfers to them. In this case, heirs of an estate fall into a priority list of estate asset distribution and the satisfaction of debts (also called the probate process), which can include:
- Funeral costs
- Estate administrative costs
- Family allowance
- Medical bills
- All other debts
If you are involved in an estate dispute or need representation in probate court, the lawyers at Stephens & Holman are dedicated to helping you resolve matters of estate settlement quickly and fairly. It is difficult to lose a loved one, and no one should have to deal with the stresses of estate management while grieving. We are here to assist you in litigating estate disputes.