Category: Probate Litigation

Tips for protecting against probate litigation

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Aug 25, 2016.

The primary purpose of an estate plan is to smooth the way for the loved ones that an individual will leave behind. The details of most plans focus on how assets will be handed down and outline which individuals are entitled to which pieces of property. It is important to note, however, that there is always a risk of one or more family members finding fault with a plan and pursuing probate litigation as a potential remedy. The best way to protect against such an outcome is to make an effort to create a clear and comprehensive plan that can withstand any number of legal challenges in a Pennsylvania court of law. This begins by keeping one’s will up-to-date. As time goes on, the structure of a family changes; loved ones pass away, marriages and divorces take place. and babies are born. If an estate plan does not reflect these changes, it becomes easier for a family member to argue that a plan is not indicative of an individual’s current intentions. For example, there have been many cases in which wills are unclear on the matter of children. If older children are mentioned by name within the legal document, a younger child can be completely left out of his or her intended inheritance. A similar issue arises when a will simply states that “children” are entitled to a share of certain assets. Do stepchildren count under this definition? What about stepchildren from a previous marriage? Children born out of wedlock can […]

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Serious problems with CBS media mogul’s estate planning

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Jun 21, 2016.

Some in Pennsylvania have been following the saga surrounding billionaire media mogul Sumner Redstone, which has been playing out for some time now. Redstone, now 93 years of age, is worth an estimated $5 billion and has a controlling interest in both CBS and Viacom. Redstone’s personal life has become tabloid fodder after several of his former partners released information concerning his sexual habits. However, Redstone is now embroiled in a battle over who will control his estate planning, a decision that will now be made by the courts, and which could result in an outcome that is far different from what Redstone intended. At the heart of the matter is a debate over whether Redstone is capable of making his own decisions and of directing the course of both his medical care and his business interests. Redstone created a trust to control 80 percent of his company, known as National Amusements. National Amusements holds 80 percent of both CBS and Viacom. The other 20 percent of National Amusements is owned by Redstone’s adult daughter, who was previously estranged from her father. A primary trustee is the chief executive of Viacom, who is also a longtime personal confidant of Sumner Redstone’s. The daughter and the trustee are now fighting over who should control Redstone’s interests, and whether the current trust structure is an accurate representation of his intentions. A great deal of money is at stake in the matter, and the legal fight is expected to continue for quite some […]

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Communication can reduce the risk of probate litigation

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Apr 8, 2016.

Pennsylvania residents who have amassed a degree of wealth are usually excited at the prospect of being able to leave something of value to their children after they are gone. Structuring that inheritance, however, can be a tricky proposition, especially in cases in which the division of wealth will not be even. Families should take care to approach this subject carefully, with the goal of reducing the risk of probate litigation between surviving children. Choosing to leave varying amounts to one’s children is not an uncommon path. Many times, adult children have chosen different paths and have differing needs. It might make sense to leave a child who is struggling a greater share of one’s estate than one who is thriving in his or her career. At times, one child will have more significant expenses due to raising a large family, while another has chosen to remain single and childless. In other cases, parents simply choose to reward the children who have made good life decisions over those who have faltered. No matter the reason for the disparity in inheritance, it is imperative that the parents take the time to discuss the issue with their kids well in advance of those provisions being set into motion. Having a group meeting to discuss the matter is a good fit for some families. Others will choose to meet with each adult child individually to talk about inheritance plans and to provide a comfortable space for the child to express any questions or […]

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Choosing an attorney for probate litigation

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Apr 1, 2016.

When a Pennsylvania resident has a need for a probate attorney, many are unsure how to find a professional to assist in their cases. It is easy to assume that any attorney who practices estate planning will also handle probate litigation, but these two areas of law are actually very different. In order to reach the best possible outcome, individuals must find an attorney whose practice and skill set is a good match for their needs. One thing to consider is the level of experience that an attorney has in probate litigation. While many attorneys will handle an occasional probate litigation case in addition to their regular workload, others will make this form of law a significant focus within their practice. It is important to choose an attorney who has the training and experience to handle probate litigation. Another issue to consider is how familiar an attorney is with the local judicial staff. Attorneys who primarily handle estate planning matters and rarely see the inside of a courtroom are not always prepared to handle a serious probate litigation case. Having a working knowledge of the judge, opposing attorneys and general courtroom procedure is essential to a favorable outcome. In looking for a probate attorney, Pennsylvania residents should not overlook the human factor. Attorneys work in a relatively limited environment in which judges, courtroom staff and other legal professionals also function. Choosing an attorney who is active in the area can make a world of difference in gaining a judge’s consideration […]

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Options for avoiding probate and simplifying inheritance

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Feb 18, 2016.

One of the primary purposes of estate planning is to ensure the assets that a Pennsylvania family has accumulated over a lifetime will pass down to the intended heirs. This simple desire can become incredibly complicated, especially in cases where there is a challenge to the will. Even when no one initiates probate litigation, the probate process can be costly and time-consuming, leaving heirs waiting for anywhere from three months to three years before they can make use of their inheritance. There are options for avoiding probate, some of which are outlined below. One of the most simple ways to ensure that assets pass directly to the intended heir is to establish joint ownership prior to death. This can be a good fit when the asset in question is real estate, vehicles or items of personal property that have significant value, such as a boat or motor home. When one owner passes away, the joint owner owns the property in full, immediately. The downside of joint ownership lies in the fact that jointly owned property is subject to loss during divorce, tax liens or legal judgments. Another option lies in creating a revocable living trust. Assets are placed within the trust, and beneficiaries are named. Once the grantor passes away, the assets held within the trust are available to the named beneficiaries. There is no need to go through the probate process, and changes can be made to the trust any time prior to the grantor’s death. The process of […]

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Avoiding probate litigation over gifts to caregivers

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Feb 4, 2016.

For many in Pennsylvania, close ties to family members have long been severed. This occurs for a number of reasons, but the end result is often a permanent cessation of all contact. In such cases, an individual may wish to leave his or her estate to a caregiver or close friend. In doing so, there are a number of considerations that must be taken to protect the intended heir from lengthy and stressful probate litigation. There are laws in place to protect older people from fraud and coercion when it comes to their estate plans. These laws are important, as many elderly or incapacitated people are subject to criminal acts aimed at stealing their assets. However, those same laws can make it difficult to bypass one’s surviving family members in favor of a caregiver. The best way to ensure that one’s assets are distributed according to his or her wishes is to draft a clearly and carefully worded will. It can also be helpful to work with an estate planning attorney who is willing to include a statement asserting that the individual was fully informed of his or her rights, and that the decision to leave an inheritance to a caregiver was made willingly and without undue influence. A similar statement can be obtained from one’s physician, noting that the person was in good mental health at the time the decision was made. Having these safeguards in place can help one’s chosen heir fend off any legal challenges that may […]

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Proper planning can help avoid probate litigation

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Nov 6, 2015.

Not every Pennsylvania family is in line with the Norman Rockwell-inspired ideal that many people aspire to. In reality, it is probably more common for families to have a blend of different personalities and approaches. While this diversity can create an interesting and entertaining sibling environment, it can also lead to serious contention when one or both parents pass on. The best way to avoid conflict and the potential for probate litigation is to take a proactive stance in regard to estate planning. This is especially true when it comes to real estate. There are a number of options that a family can choose from in determining how to hand down one or more pieces of property. For couples, joint tenancy is a solid choice. Under this plan, both spouses own equal shares of a piece of real estate; when one dies, the other will inherit his or her share, leaving that party in full possession of the property. From that point forward, a new decision must be made as to how the property will pass down to children and grandchildren. Tenancy in common is an attractive choice for many families as it helps to ensure that property remains within the family. Under this approach, individuals can own unequal shares in a property, and that ownership can be granted at different times. When one owner dies, his or her share is divided equally among the surviving parties. No matter which approach is chosen, the key to estate planning success involves […]

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Proper file storage can avoid probate litigation

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Jun 19, 2015.

When planning one’s estate, most Pennsylvania residents feel certain that their heirs will not fight with one another over the provisions laid out within those documents. This, however, is never a given, and there are many cases in which families fall into contention after a parent or grandparent dies, which often leads to a legal battle. One of the best ways to protect against probate litigation is to properly store all estate planning paperwork, so that one’s wishes are clearly documented. One issue that can lead to conflict is when an individual creates one set of estate planning documents, but later drafts new versions that are meant to update or revise the old. If the most recent documents are not able to be located, the individuals who are included within the first set will have a strong legal case to have those documents honored. In order to avoid this outcome, additional steps must be taken. To begin, individuals who create new or updated estate planning documents should include a statement within the new version that directly addresses any previously existing paperwork. It should be stated that the new version is intended to eliminate any provisions laid out within earlier versions. By having this statement in place, it becomes far more difficult for individuals to contest the new documents in court. Proper storage of estate planning documents is also essential to ensuring a favorable outcome. Documents can be stored with one’s attorney, and all pages should also be scanned and stored […]

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Yes, I am of sound mind, and I come in peace from Alpha Centauri

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Mar 27, 2015.

We have been talking about capacity and estate planning. Pennsylvania law states that a will is valid only if it is executed by a person who is 18 years old and of sound mind. The question we have been trying to answer — and that experts actually admit is unanswerable — is what does a sound mind, aka capacity, look like? In 1975, the movie “Grey Gardens” chronicled the day-to-day life of Edith “Big Edie” and daughter “Little Edie” Beale, of East Hampton. They lived in what was universally described as “a crumbling mansion” and in close company with a number of cats and raccoons. The Health Department found that their home, littered with organic and inorganic waste, violated every building regulation in the book. Watching the film or reading about the women leaves one with the definite impression the two Edies were eccentric. Can someone be eccentric and of sound mind? In Pennsylvania, the answer is a typical legal answer: maybe. State case law says that eccentric, even inappropriate behavior may be used as evidence to prove a lack of capacity, but there must be more. On the other hand, the courts treat unorthodox religious beliefs a little differently. In a 1903 case, the testator was determined to be of sound mind even though he believed he could communicate with the dead through a medium. The tipping point was not the need for an intermediary (the medium), but, rather, the fact that nothing in the will indicated that the […]

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Are beauty and capacity in the eye of the beholder?

On behalf of Kaplin Stewart Meloff Reiter & Stein, P.C. posted in Probate Litigation on Mar 20, 2015.

Ask any baby boomer you meet on the street if he or she is having little memory glitches, and you are likely to get more than a simple “yes.” If your experience is anything like ours, the answer will be, “Yes, and it drives me nuts!” It is frustrating to forget someone’s name mid-sentence, or to lose track of your glasses or your checkbook (remember checkbooks? like credit cards, but bigger), or to blank out on whether the Eagles or the Patriots play for Philadelphia. The last could get you into deep trouble if it happens in the wrong bar. But the occasional memory lapse or search for a common word should not be alarming, according to a friend’s internist. A memory care specialist told another friend that if you can count backward from 100 by sevens and spell the word “world” backwards, you are not suffering from dementia. Maybe not dementia, but do you have capacity? Are you of sound enough mind to have “intelligent knowledge of the natural objects of [your] bounty?” We ask because that is the definition the Pennsylvania courts will use if anyone challenges your capacity at the time you signed your will or your power of attorney. As we said in our last post, you need “testamentary capacity” to execute estate planning documents. You cannot be under duress, and you have to know what you’re doing at least as well as a “normal person” would under the same circumstances, according to Black’s Law Dictionary […]

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