Estate administration can be one of the most emotionally and financially complex issues you will ever face. Administering a loved one’s estate can resurrect old family feuds, create new ones, and generally strain your relationships.
Even if there are disputes over the administration of estates, you may still be able to avoid the unnecessary conflict of a drawn-out probate court battle. Many arguments can be resolved through less adversarial means, such as mediation. But why are disputes so common in the first place?
Three Common Causes of Estate Administration Disputes
There are two basic reasons estate administration causes arguments: money and emotions. Many estates involve significant amounts of money or valuable assets, such as homes. Administering an estate also occurs during a time of strong emotion, just after a loved one has passed. People often connect the inheritances they receive with the decedent’s love for them. The combination of money and emotion can make seemingly minor disagreements turn into serious legal disputes.
However, these disputes need to have a legal basis, or they cannot affect the distribution of assets. The three most common reasons that estates may face a probate battle include:
- Conflicting or Missing Estate Documents: Whether there is more than one will, a will has gone missing, or it never existed in the first place, there will be legal problems. Contradictory documents or a lack of proper planning can leave an estate trapped in probate as parties contest the outcome.
- Unanticipated Beneficiaries, Bequests, or Disinheritances: If someone believes that a beneficiary or gift should not have been included in a will, they may argue that it was a mistake or the result of undue influence. For example, if a parent leaves a child out of the will, that child could contest it as a mistake.
- Breach of Fiduciary Duty Allegations: The administrator, also known as the executor or fiduciary, has a responsibility to handle the distribution of assets fairly and in a timely fashion. If anyone believes this is not the case, they can file a break of fiduciary duty claim to have the executor replaced.
In some cases, these complaints are valid. Regardless of their validity, any claim filed in probate court could tie up the entire estate for months or even years longer than necessary.
The Impact of Drawn-Out Probate Battles
In California, almost every estate spends at least some time in probate court. This court system is responsible for enforcing state and federal inheritance laws as well as the decedent’s last wishes. Whenever an estate consists of more than $166,250 in assets, it must go through probate to answer questions like:
- Whether a will is valid
- Who the decedent’s beneficiaries are
- How any remaining debts should be paid
- How assets should be transferred
When a well-written estate plan exists, these questions are typically answered quickly. The executor can take over the management of the estate and transfer assets in just a few months, with relatively few costs.
However, that’s no longer the case if anyone disputes the will or there are missing documents. It can take a year or more to resolve these disputes. In the meantime, the relevant assets will be tied up and unavailable to anyone. Furthermore, the assets will be subject to many expenses related to the probate case, including court fees, the costs of hiring professionals to appraise property value, and more. This can quickly shrink the estate, reducing the amount the beneficiaries receive.
Benefits of Resolving Family Legal Disputes Through Mediation
It isn’t necessary for every estate dispute to be managed in probate court. Disputes can often be resolved through alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods like mediation.
In mediation, the disputing parties work together with a trained mediator to negotiate a resolution. For example, siblings who disagree on how to divide the house their parents jointly left them could attend mediation to discuss their concerns and decide on the best solution. The mediator’s role is to help defuse arguments and encourage productive negotiations.
Mediation has several benefits over going to court for estate disputes, including:
- Speed: Probate courts are often overwhelmed with cases. Attending mediation can help you resolve disputes significantly faster than attending multiple court hearings spread out over months. As a result, you can get access to the assets more quickly and move past the matter sooner.
- Cost: The speed of mediation means it also costs significantly less. You can resolve the dispute without accruing months of court and professional fees. All beneficiaries then receive a greater share of the overall assets.
- Community: Court battles are adversarial. In estate disputes, that makes family members take sides against each other, potentially causing permanent rifts. In contrast, mediation is collaborative, with participants working together to find solutions. Pursuing mediation instead of resolving every argument through probate court can help you strengthen relationships instead of damaging them.
In short, mediating estate administration disputes is faster, less expensive, and better for maintaining family bonds. While mediation cannot resolve every argument, especially if someone is acting in bad faith, it can be an invaluable tool for helping families resolve conflicts around their loved ones’ last wishes.
Speak to an Expert California Estate Mediator
Disputes can feel insurmountable when you are carrying out a loved one’s last wishes. However, some assistance from a skilled mediator may help you resolve these disagreements without breaking family ties. If you are facing estate administration disputes, you can seek help from the experienced mediators at the Law Offices of Denise Eaton May, P.C. Our skilled mediators and litigators have decades of experience in all areas of estate administration. Learn more about how we can assist you by scheduling your consultation with our mediators today.