Will contests and trust disputes are often the most contentious and emotional types of litigation. They most often arise after the passing of a family member or close friend, and typically involve disputes over the decedent’s relationships with and affection for the parties. While we handle these matters as if they are going to trial, we always strive to preserve the estate’s assets and encourage family harmony as much as possible. Our office most commonly handles the following issues in estate litigation:
Most cases of undue influence arise out of a material change to an estate plan, made soon before a testator’s passing. An individual who abuses a position of trust in order to bring about a favorable change in a testator’s estate plan can be held liable for damages, and the altered estate plan can be declared void.
Massachusetts courts recognize that undue influence can be exerted in a variety of ways. In general, it involves the exertion of coercion over someone who has been weakened by old age or disease, so as to change their testamentary objectives, resulting in an “unnatural disposition.” Undue influence is typically found when a defendant has engaged in conduct such as:
The burden of proof for an undue influence claim generally rests with the challenger to the estate plan. However, if the defendant was acting in a fiduciary capacity (e.g. under a power of attorney) during the relevant time period, the burden shifts to the fiduciary to prove that he or she was acting in the best interests of the testator at all times.
Will contests often involve allegations that the testator lacked the mental capacity to properly create the estate plan at issue and understand its terms and effect. If the testator lacked this cognitive capacity when he or she created an estate planning device, the document can be declared void. A claim that the testator lacked testamentary capacity is often paired with a count for undue influence.
Establishing that a testator lacked capacity can be challenging. It typically involves the gathering and careful consideration of the testator’s medical records, with particular attention paid to the date on which the estate planning documents were executed. Only certain individuals are permitted to testify about a decedent’s testamentary capacity. Additionally, under Massachusetts law, there is a presumption that a testator understood an estate planning document and its effect upon signing it. However, if a challenger puts forth some evidence that a testator lacked capacity on the date of execution, the burden then shifts to the proponent of the estate plan to prove otherwise.
Testamentary Trust Disputes:
A testamentary trust governs the disposition of the testator’s assets after his or her death. In 2012, Massachusetts repealed its existing statutes governing the administration of trusts and adopted the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code (“MUTC”), codified in Mass. Gen. Laws, chapter 203E. The MUTC is meant to provide clarity on common issues that arise in trust disputes, such as:
A trustee has a fiduciary duty to the trust’s beneficiaries. In general, this means that a trustee must act solely in the interest of the beneficiaries, in good faith and with sound judgment. The MUTC also identifies specific trustee duties, including duties to:
While most plaintiffs in civil litigation bear the burden of proof in asserting their claims, a trustee generally bears the burden of proving that he or she has acted properly and solely in the interests of the beneficiaries. Under the MUTC, a beneficiary who establishes that a trustee has breached his or her duties can obtain one or more of a host of judicial remedies, including:
The contents of this page are intended for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice. For guidance and advocacy tailored to the needs of your legal matter, please contact our office.
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