Inheritance Litigation

Inheritance litigation involves claims made regarding estates, wills, trusts, retirement accounts, bank accounts, attorney conduct, and related matters in the state of Missouri. Many people who have had a loved one pass are rightfully concerned when a will or other device is used to unfairly distribute the decedent’s (deceased’s) assets as a result of improper conduct, undue influence, cheating, fraud, or attorney malpractice.

How Should You Proceed?

It is important to act now if you think you have a claim and other people are in control of the money or assets you believe rightfully belong to you or your family. Money, assets, and valuables accumulate over a lifetime and quickly disappear if prompt legal action is not taken. By contacting a Columbia inheritance litigation attorney as soon as you are aware of the wrongdoing, you are increasing your chances of regaining what is rightfully yours.

Our law firm has experience in contesting and defending cases involving inheritance disputes which may include:

  • Wills
  • Trusts
  • Beneficiary designations
  • Bank accounts
  • Certificates of deposit
  • Joint accounts
  • Pay on death accounts
  • Beneficiary deeds
  • Retirement accounts

Undue Influence

We also have experience in cases involving improper or undue influence in the making of a will or trust, mental incompetency of the testator or trustor, fraud, undue influence or wrongful interference with an inheritance, and legal malpractice claims related to estate planning attorneys.

In inheritance litigation, there must be solid ground for a challenge of an estate plan. A challenge cannot be issued due only to unhappiness with what was received or not received. Grounds for a challenge can include undue influence, lack of capacity, lack of proper actions, and lack of clarity.
Undue influence is the unnecessary and unjust influence of a third party upon the testator (maker of the will) that takes away the free will of the testator, and usually sets up the influencer to inherit more than they originally would have.
Lack of capacity is the absence of proper mental capacity to construct a will. If the testator lacks this mental ability, the will may be challenged.

Lack of Proper Actions

Lack of proper actions refers to the proper guidelines those involved in the will-making process must follow. In Missouri, two witnesses must be present at the testator’s signing of the will and must also sign it. If any of the guidelines were not followed or were executed improperly, the will may be challenged.
Finally, lack of clarity is the absence of clear identification and instructions. If a beneficiary or asset is not properly identified, the will is unclear.

Breaking a Will

A will can be contested, or broken, on the basis that the person who wrote it lacked the proper mental state to understand the will at the time it was signed. Obviously, a will signed years ago, when the decedent (deceased) was unquestionably in his right mind, is harder to contest than one that was signed late in life, particularly when the person was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, senility, or any other problems of advanced age or sickness. A will can be contested because of many other factors, such as a lack of clear instructions, failure to follow guidelines, and undue influence.

A lack of clear instructions describes a will without definitive parties and assets. If the testator makes a vague reference to a beneficiary, such as only using a first name, the will is unclear. The same lack of clarity would apply if the testator clearly identified an asset, but the designation was unclear.

The failure to follow the guidelines required to validate a will can result in a will contest. If the correct number of witness are not present, the testator does not sign, or changes were made but with a lack of formalities, the will may be challenged.

About Undue Influence

Undue influence is the destruction of free will by a third party. If someone persuades the testator in such a way that the testator’s true intentions are not present in the will, undue influence has taken place. For example, a caregiver might isolate the testator from his or her family and manipulate the testator to change his or her will to include the caregiver. The testator’s will has been changed, and it no longer reflects his or her true intentions.

Undue influence depends on four factors: the vulnerability of the testator to manipulation, the access of the influencer to the testator, the ability of the influencer to manipulate the testator, and the success of the influencer. If all four factors can be proven, the contesting party will be successful.

Setting Aside Bank Accounts

To set aside banking transfers, known as beneficiary designations, one must prove that the deceased person was defrauded or was unduly influenced to make the undesired change or to add another person’s name on the account. One does not have to be legally incompetent to be unduly influenced. However, some lack of capacity usually exists to allow one to be unduly influenced in the first place. Undue influence means such influence as destroys the free choice of the person making the change in account ownership.

Undue influence is generally proved by circumstantial evidence, as there are seldom any witnesses. People who perpetrate these actions on the elderly do so in a silent, secretive, and furtive manner. They do not intend for anyone to know about it.

Financial Exploitation of the Elderly

“My uncle told me several months ago that he was leaving me some money when he passed on. Now that he’s gone, I’ve gone to every bank in town and they won’t tell me anything.” Does this sound familiar? Unless your name was on an account in survivorship form, the bank will not talk to you. If someone else’s name was on the account with your late uncle, the bank will not tell you. If you are facing this issue, it is imperative that you speak to a Columbia attorney about your situation as soon as possible.

Stopping Financial Exploitation

Financial exploitation of the elderly might be one of the last great frontiers as the baby boomer generation begins to age. Seniors are particularly susceptible to being talked out of their money because of Alzheimer’s disease, senility, and weakened health conditions due to advanced age.

In their declining years, they are susceptible to people from the “church”, “friendly housekeepers”, “well-meaning friends”, sometimes referred to as “the casserole ladies”, and other similar opportunists, who will show them extended periods of kindness and favors while slowly unduly influencing the elderly to place them on their bank accounts and real estate. By undue influence it is meant such influence as destroys the free choice of the person making the will.

What You Can Do

Unfortunately, the lack of information and lack of access to the information places a bewildered heir in a very difficult position of not knowing what has gone on, or even how to find out.

“But my uncle had a will that left everything to me,” you say. Wills have to be filed in court, which starts a process called probate. However, wills only control property a decedent had in their name alone. The will then controls how that property is to pass. After the will is filed in court, a complete listing of all property the deceased owned is filed with the court, and the court supervises all activity from that point on. This is called probating an estate. If an opportunist has been placed on the assets in survivorship form, the asset passes outside of probate, and is not subject to the will.

With the increased popularity of beneficiary deeds and beneficiary registration of certificates of deposit, sometimes referred to as a poor man’s estate plan, the opportunities for plundering the elderly have greatly increased.

We’re Here To Support You

If a situation as described above exists, it is absolutely imperative that rapid steps be taken to open an estate on the deceased, and file what is known as a petition to discover assets and possibly a will contest, so that adequate information can be obtained to determine whether your late loved one was unduly influenced (tricked) or exploited by someone they would have never intended to receive the assets, had they been in their right mind or good health. Simply waiting to see what will happen may allow the opportunist that has wrongfully and unduly influenced a senior to withdraw the money and be long gone, or spend it.

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Inheritance Litigation FAQ

How are attorney’s fees paid in these types of cases?

Attorney fee contracts are typically made in one of three ways: a contingency fee, an hourly fee or a blended fee. Contingency fees are a percentage of the gross amount recovered for the client. An hourly fee is simply an hourly rate times the number of hours worked by the attorney. Blended fees are a combination of a reduced hourly fee and a lower contingency fee percentage. Each case is different. The client’s ability to pay an hourly fee and pay the costs of litigation differ in each case, and therefore are matters of negotiation between the attorney and the client on a case by case basis.

How long do I have to bring a case?

The passage of time is very important when it comes to legal issue. This is particularly true in probate matters. If you believe that you may have a case, believe you have somehow been wronged, or if you receive a notice of the administration of a decedent’s estate or a notice of a trust administration, you should contact an attorney of your choosing immediately in order to seek a consultation to protect your rights so they are not claim barred under an applicable statute of limitations. Statutes of limitations and claims deadlines are important matters. If the amount of time allowed under the law passes, your claim may be permanently barred. Each case is unique, and there may be exceptions that may or may not be applicable to your particular case. Please contact us to arrange an appointment. However, be advised that by simply calling us, we are not your attorneys. Only upon entering into a formal written attorney/client contract do we become your attorneys.

Won’t I be notified by the court that a will has been filed and to notify me of my rights?

With the popularity of trust and beneficiary accounts as estate planning tools, many times a decedent’s money and assets are passed outside probate. In these cases, sometimes the beneficiaries can get the money almost immediately after the decedent’s death. The beneficiaries are not required to notify anyone. The passage of time makes these situations very difficult to discover.

The passage of time is not helpful in these cases, as you may never be notified by anyone until any claim you have may be barred by a statute of limitations.

What if I live in another state, but the inheritance issues arise in the state of Missouri?

Our law firm has represented numerous clients from different states in litigation here in Missouri. Our firm is also involved in or has litigated a number of cases in other states. The litigation may be conducted here in Missouri. You do not have to live here to bring the claim in this state. You may be compelled by the court to attend a trial or give deposition testimony in the State of Missouri. Until we know the facts of your particular case, we cannot determine the exact requirements, but we have substantial experience working with out-of-state clients in an efficient manner. We encourage you to contact us regarding any inheritance dispute about which you are concerned.

How do I know if I have a case to challenge a will, a trust, or a beneficiary designation?

Whether or not you have a particular case under the law is dependent upon many factors, and can only be determined after a thorough investigation.
However, relevant factors often include:

  • Whether the person benefiting from the will or trust was involved in the procurement of the will or beneficiary designation;
  • If there was a prior document with a different disposition;
  • Whether the decedent was competent when the will or beneficiary designation was made or changed;
  • Whether the decedent was unduly influenced when they made the will or beneficiary designation, or when one was changed;
  • Whether the will form was properly followed, including appropriate witnesses, notarization and signatures;
  • Whether the decedent was under the care of the person who is the beneficiary;
  • The nature of the relationship with the person named in the will or beneficiary designation;
  • Whether the making of a will, or beneficiary designation or the change to a will or beneficiary designation was made shortly before the death of decedent, or significant change in the decedent’s ability to make decisions for themselves;
  • Whether the beneficiary stood in a fiduciary relationship with the decedent;
  • Or a defacto fiduciary relationship;
  • If there was no prior will or trust and you were an heir at law;
  • Where there is no prior will or trust, but you are a spouse of the decedent;
  • Whether the decedent was manipulated, or isolated from family members;
  • Whether the decedent had a dependent relationship with the beneficiary;
  • Whether the beneficiary was a professional such as an attorney, doctor or member of the clergy;
  • Whether the will or the trust beneficiaries are persons with whom the decedent did not have a good relationship;
  • Whether the persons benefiting from the will or trust were distant from the decedent, and other people had a closer relationship or family ties.

All of the above factors, as well as additional factors, may give rise to a claim. The strength of your particular case always depends upon the specific facts of the case. At the beginning of any consultation some facts are known and other facts will be unknown and must be investigated. Please understand that no attorney can make an off-the-cuff assessment. Only after consultation and investigation, can we give you an idea of whether or not your case is meritorious and worth pursuing.

What about competency?

Serious questions about a decedent’s intentions may arise when the decedent was ill or very elderly and made a significant decision regarding the disposition of their worldly property shortly before death. Obviously if the inheritance was a result of a legitimate and thought-out plan, the decedent’s intentions will be carried out. However, where the person was ill or elderly and the decision was made shortly before death, it may be illegitimate, and the product of an overreaching or dishonest person, relative, family friend, or professional advisor. When a person who has a relationship with the decedent unfairly influences the decedent to leave them money, the law recognizes a cause of action to set aside the inheritance because of the undue influence or overreaching. The individual facts or circumstances can be difficult to prove, but the law does create certain presumptions if a basic case can be made. Questions concerning a person’s competency to make the decision, their health, as well as their relationship to the person who is the beneficiary, are all critical questions that must be investigated and pursued to make a proper case.
Often the outcome of these types of cases will boil down to very specific evidence concerning the making of the will or trust, the relationship between the parties, the decedent’s mental, physical, and emotional state, as well as the jury’s assessment of credibility of the witnesses.

What type of inheritance documents can be challenged?

Wills, trusts, revocable trusts, beneficiary deeds, quit claim deeds, warranty deeds, options, life insurance beneficiary designations, retirement account beneficiary designations, bank account beneficiary designations, and other related matters may all be challenged for undue influence, incompetency, or fraud.
In addition, certain people are barred from being the beneficiary of the decedent because of their direct relationship to the decedent and the decedent’s dependence upon them. This would include licensed professional caregivers in a nursing home, attorneys of the decedent who were preparing the inheritance related documents, and licensed financial planners and advisors.

What sort of evidence will have to be gathered?

Many cases require several years of medical records from different institutions and multiple doctors be obtained. Many elderly people have extensive medical records and are on extensive numbers of medications. Each of these medications needs to be understood for their effect on the physical, psychological, and mental processes of the decedent. Medical records, as well as testimony of medical witnesses, may demonstrate whether or not impairment was present, and whether it was mild, moderate or severe. In addition, depending upon the timing of the documents involved, a person’s competency may vary from time to time, and thus a specific analysis is of vital importance.

Testimony from non-medical witnesses is also incredibly important. This can shed light on the mental competency, and the ability, of the decedent to understand the nature and extent of the property, and the relationships with their closest family members.

Are there limitations on who a decedent can give their money to?

There are some limitations under the law in Missouri as to whom a decedent can leave their money to, but other than these very specific limitations, a person is free to leave their money and property to whomever they wish. Other than very specific exclusions, the testator’s intentions will be followed, unless the will, trust, or beneficiary designation was the product of fraud, undue influence, or overreaching, or the decedent was not competent to make the decision at the time the documents were executed. Persons who are protected from decisions by the testator to leave money to people other than them include the present spouse of the decedent and minor children.

What is a breach of fiduciary duty?

This is an issue that comes up when misappropriation of assets from a trust has occurred. When a trustor leaves money in a trust for beneficiaries, sometimes the person or company that is the trust may misappropriate the assets meant for the beneficiaries, either through mismanagement of the funds, inappropriate oversight of the funds, through a breach of fiduciary duty, or outright theft or fraud. There are remedies for the beneficiaries who should have received the inheritance funds to pursue the trustee, whether it be an individual or a company. Trustees act as fiduciaries for the beneficiaries and must exercise the utmost good faith. This requires both the prudent and sound management of investments, oversight and security of the funds, avoidance of self-dealing, or acting in a way to benefit the trustee beyond what is allowed as normal fees for performing those obligations. If you believe you have been a victim of a trustee’s improper handling of funds or a breach of fiduciary duty, you should contact an attorney immediately.

Issues with the trustees may include the failure of the trustee to diversify the trust assets appropriately. Just because a trustee may handle an investment portfolio in a profitable manner, does not mean the investments are being properly handled with regard to the beneficiary’s interest. For example, if the beneficiary is a person with special needs who needs income, having the trust assets invested in growth stocks, even ones performing well, will not be a wise investment strategy for the beneficiary. Prudent investor standards require that the trustee conform to well-recognized uniform principles regarding how investments should be managed.

Trustees must also fairly distribute the trust assets. In some situations this can create problems, when a duty to one beneficiary conflicts with the duty to another. This can sometimes happen in cases of a family member trustee, when the trustee is also a beneficiary. Temptation can arise for the trustee to take additional funds when they have control of the trust and are also a beneficiary. In addition, when the trustee has agreed to serve with no fee, the work necessary to distribute the funds may sometimes pose a temptation to taking extra distributions and lead to a breach of fiduciary duty.