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Suffolk Estate Litigation

The death of a loved one and the process of settling that person's estate is an emotional time. The combination of emotion and complicated family dynamics can be a recipe for disputes. When there is a dispute over the management of an estate or the terms of the will, then a type of estate litigation called a will contest, may occur. However, estate litigation is not only caused by disputes between family members about the terms of a will. It can occur based on the actions of the executor or due to a claim brought by a creditor. For example, a creditor may believe that the estate owes it money and file a claim against the estate. Or a beneficiary may take issue with the way the executor is managing the assets of the estate. Any dispute over an estate that cannot be resolved without getting the court involved is considered estate litigation. The best way to understand the complexities involved in managing disputes related to an estate is to contact an experienced Suffolk County estate litigation lawyer who will be able to explain your legal options and who will represent your interests throughout the legal process.

Common types of disputes that may lead to estate litigation

There are many different types of disputes that may arise in connection with the administration of an estate. The will itself may be challenged in a will contest based questions as to whether it was properly executed. In order to effectively execute a will in New York there are specific requirements that must be followed.

  • The will must be signed by the testator, or by another person at the direction of the testator and in the presence of the testator.
  • The signing of the will must be witnessed by at least two people, or the testator must acknowledge his or her signature to each of the attesting witnesses.
  • During the execution ceremony the testator must declare that the document signed is indeed his or her will.

To ensure that your will is properly executed, seek the advice of an experienced estate litigation attorneys serving Suffolk County.

Improper execution. A will contest can be based on an allegation that the will was not properly executed. Before the court admits a will to probate, it will review the will and the circumstances surrounding its execution to determine that the will is genuine and that it was executed according to New York law. If the court is satisfied that that will is valid, the court will admit to probate. However, if someone challenges the execution of the will, the court will not admit the will to probate. It will first review the evidence and determine whether or not the objection is supported by evidence.

In In the Matter of the Estate of Helen Werner, 960 N.Y.S.2d 53 (2011), the testator's brother, objected to the will claiming among other things that it was executed by mistake. To determine whether the testator intended to execute the will, the court reviewed the circumstances surrounding the execution of the will. The judge gave great weight to the testimony of the testator's attorney that the testator intended to execute the will and that it was executed consistent with New York law.

The objector to Werner's will also alleged that her signature was a forgery. Proof a signature can be made by handwriting analysis performed by an expert. But the court will look at other evidence as well. In Werner the handwriting analysis determined that the signature was probably not the testator's. However, the handwriting expert's opinion was not as persuasive as the testimony of two attorneys who witnessed signature, since there was no reason for the attorneys to perjure themselves.

Testamentary capacity and undue influence. New York law also requires that the testator at the time of signing the will, must not have suffered from a mental incapacity. Thus, if an interested party feels that the deceased did indeed suffer from a mental incapacity, he or she may challenge the will. Similarly, a will may be challenged if at the signing of the will the testator was under duress.

Undue influence. Undue influence occurs when the testator has testamentary capacity, but that capacity is subjected to and controlled by another individual who has manipulative, selfish intentions. Typically the person exerting undue influence does so in order to convince the testator to make him or her a beneficiary. As an experienced estate litigation attorneys serving Suffolk County will explain, influencing a testator to leave a bequest is not the same as exerting undue influence. For example, if you simply asked to be included in a testator's will and the testator agreed, does not amount to undue influence. Undue influence includes elements of manipulation and force. For example, a friend who keeps away family members from a testator and also convinces that testator to leave him or her the entire estate, likely exerted undue influence of over that testator.

Undue influence can even take a the form of duress could involving physical or mental abuse or threats that compel the testator to execute a will that included terms that the testator may not have otherwise included, or may not have fully understood. The result of someone believing that the testator was under duress or was subjected to undue influence at the time the will was executed could also be a will contest.

If the court concludes that there were improprieties surrounding the writing or execution of a will, the judge may declare that the will is invalid, or invalidate specific provisions of the will. NY EPTL § 4-1.1.

Testamentary capacity. Estate litigation can develop over whether the testator had the mental capacity to make a will. At the time the testator executed the will he must have:

  • Understood what he owned. The testator must have had a general idea of the value of his estate. If a testator’s property was worth $1,000,000 but he believed that his property was worth only $50,000, the testator probably would not pass the testamentary capacity test. On the other hand if the testator’s property was worth $1,000,000 but he believe that hi property was worth $700,000, he would pass this part of the testamentary capacity test.
  • Understood who his heirs were. The testator must have known who is natural heirs were. In other words, he must have known who would legally be entitled to his estate. If the testator did not recognize his spouse or remember that he had children, he would not have testamentary capacity.
  • Understood the meaning of making a will. The testator must have understood what it means to make a will as well as what it meant to make that particular will. In other words he must have understood that by executing the will he was giving away his property to the people or institutions mentioned in the will.

If you are an interested party in an estate matter and have reason to believe that a testator lacked testamentary capacity, contact an estate litigation attorneys in Suffolk County.

Fiduciary litigation. Estate litigation can arise over a dispute over how fiduciaries have administered the estate. A fiduciary is an individual who has the authority to act in the best interests of another person. In the case of a will or a trust, fiduciaries include the executor or trustee. In addition, professionals hired to help perform services for the estate such as attorneys, accountants, business advisors and bankers are also fiduciaries. Guardians and conservators are also fiduciaries.

Common types of estate litigation that involve fiduciaries include breach of fiduciary duties, accusations of accounting irregularities, action to remove a trustee, disputes involving how to interpret the language of a will or trust, disagreements among beneficiaries as to how assets are distributed, and contested conservatorships or guardianships.

Contact the Law Offices of Stephen Bilkis & Associates

Estate litigation can be complex and emotionally taxing. It can also cause a significant delay in the distribution of the estate's assets. Because of what might be at stake with estate litigation, it is important that you have experienced representation to ensure that your interests are protected. The skilled estate litigation attorneys serving Suffolk County at the Law Offices of Stephen Bilkis & Associates are experienced involved in disputed estate matters in the New York Surrogate's Court. We will help you make the process as painless as possible under the circumstances. Contact us at 1-800-NY-NY-LAW (1-800-696-9529) to schedule a free, no obligation consultation regarding your case. We represent clients in the following locations: Suffolk County, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Nassau County, Westchester County, Staten Island, and Long Island.

Client Reviews
★★★★★
Mr. Bilkis handled both my father and mother's estate issues through very difficult times he was compassionate kind and understanding. In fact the whole firm showed great empathy. Despite the emotional hard time we were having that quickly and efficiently handle all the matters that were necessary to get us the result we desired. Can't recommend them enough. B.B.
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