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A Legacy Of Conflict – Dealing With Family Feuds In Probate Court

A Legacy Of Conflict - Dealing With Family Feuds In Probate CourtThis article explains:

  • How families get into feuds and legal battles over inheritance disputes in probate court.
  • What a probate trial might resemble and who can be called on to bear witness in it.
  • Who can participate in the probate process and why.

What Happens When Inheritance Conflicts Cannot Be Worked Out Between The Parties?

Every reasonable attorney hopes that all family members will be able to settle any inheritance disputes after someone passes on. In such cases, when the settlement can be reached, and provided that every person involved is an adult who is not suffering from some incapacity, the court will generally be delighted to approve it.

Unfortunately, here in Oklahoma as elsewhere, such amicable resolutions are not always possible. Sometimes everyone believes they are on the right side of the law (or morality) and they cannot reach an agreement as to the outcome. When that happens, we go to trial.

During trial witnesses will be called; experts may be put on the stand to testify, documents will be entered into evidence, and the attorneys will argue over the laws they believe apply to the facts that are brought forward. The judge is then obligated to apply the law to the facts to reach an outcome that matches the letter of the law if there was no legal will or the intent of the deceased if there was a last will and testament.

Such a trial is almost always terribly expensive, time-consuming, and leaves both sides feeling unhappy with the outcome. Nonetheless, trials do happen in probate court, and unfortunately many of those involved end up leaving the family feeling that only the attorneys came out ahead, as the attorneys got paid (usually a lot) for the process.

Therefore, if you can settle a case with your family at anything even remotely close to what seems fair and reasonable, you should give such a solution great consideration and only go to trial as an absolute last resort.

What Is Probate Court?

In Oklahoma County and some of the other larger counties in the state, there are designated judges whose days are filled with hearing probate cases. These judges are tasked with learning the details of the law and applying those laws very strictly to the cases involving deceased people, the assets they left behind, and potentially the claims of any creditors.

Probate courts interpret the law, but they may also be called on to interpret trusts and other questions related to the estates left by the deceased – as well as the claims made by their family or even the creditors. In the worst cases of conflict over a deceased’s belongings or estate, this is where the dispute will be settled unless everyone can reach an agreement.

Is A Probate Trial A Formal Contested Trial In A Courtroom?

Probate trials are very similar to trials you see on TV (minus some of television’s flair for the dramatic). The judge will sit at a raised bench, front and center in the courtroom. To one side there will be a court reporter and to the other side there will be a witness stand. In some probate courts there will also be a jury box for the empanelment of a jury.

During trial, the attorneys will alternately stand at a podium generally facing the judge or jury and make their arguments or question the witness from the podium. Witnesses are sworn in, just like you see on TV, but unlike what you see on television, the rules of evidence are far more strictly followed.

What Kind Of Evidence And Witnesses Will There Be In A Probate Trial?

There are many types of evidence a probate court judge may need to consider and dozens of different witnesses could be called to testify. For example, if the probate trial concerns whether or not the document (evidence) that has been submitted as the deceased person’s last will and testament is an original, then the witnesses are likely to include experts in handwriting or experts in document preservation and identification.

On the other hand, if the trial concerns whether the deceased person was under undue influence at the time he or she signed the last will and testament, then the witnesses are likely going to be people who observed the deceased during his or her life. To do this, the attorneys will look for people who knew the personalities of the people involved or for those who had the opportunity to know about the signing of the will and what was said and done near that time.

Sometimes the trial concerns whether a particular asset belonging to the decedent was one that he or she accumulated “during coverture” (during the time that they were married and together with their spouse) and whether the asset was purchased with joint property or might have been a gift from a parent or some other source. In such trials, there may be expert witnesses such as accountants, tax preparers, and even forensic accountants who will describe facts and give opinions to the court.

The total list of types of trials that can happen in probate court is quite lengthy, but these are a few of the examples that you may see in probate court. Each one is its own lengthy and expensive drama, and some can contain any or all of the above, and more, in combination. Avoiding trials of this nature is certainly ideal, but if you do face such a trial, you’re more likely to find a favorable outcome by working with a specialized and experienced probate court attorney.

Who Can Ask For A Probate Trial In Oklahoma?

Oklahoma law states that anyone who is “interested” in a case has the right to participate in probate and bring questions before the court. In this sense, “interested” does not mean just a passing curiosity, but rather people who have certain rights in the estate.

For example, the people identified in the last will and testament to inherit from the estate are considered interested parties and are allowed to bring questions forward. Likewise, the legal heirs or spouse of the deceased person are also considered to be interested parties in a probate case. In certain situations, even creditors are interested persons as it is in their best interest that the estate be administered correctly and efficiently and that the debts are paid appropriately.

Regardless of who is bringing the case, it will be up to them and their attorneys to try and settle or battle it out in probate court. This is why you want to make sure you have the best and most reliable experienced estate planning and probate law attorney.

For more information on Asset Protection Planning In Oklahoma, a free initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (405) 754-4166 today.

Terrell Monks, Esq. - Estate Planning Attorney, Edmond City

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