One of the most difficult aspects of going through the probate process is dealing with disputes among family members. If your loved one did not leave an estate plan, if his or her estate plan is unclear or incomplete, or if there are questions regarding its validity, these are all issues that can require some form of intervention in order to achieve a final resolution.
Other issues can lead to disputes among family members as well. For example, if one or more family members believe that the decedent’s personal representative is not competently fulfilling his or her duties, there may be calls for his or her removal. Regardless of the issue, it needs to be resolved, and it will most likely be in everyone’s best interests to find a mutually-agreeable way to move forward.
How Can Family Members Amicably Resolve Their Disagreements during the Probate Process?
While every family’s situation is different, there are a number of potential ways to amicably resolve disagreements during the probate process. These include:
1. Explaining the Issues Involved and the Laws That Apply
Probate is complicated, and the laws that govern the estate administration process are dense and difficult to understand. In many cases, disputes arise simply because family members have flawed understandings (or have made faulty assumptions) about what they can expect from the probate process.
As a result, when a disagreement arises during probate, the first question that needs to be asked is, “Are both individuals’ positions valid?” In many circumstances, the answer will be, “No.” When this is the case, educating those involved in a tactful and respectful manner will often prove effective in resolving the issue and getting everyone back on the same page.
2. Private, Attorney-Led Negotiations
Of course, many situations do involve legitimate disputes, and these situations can be more difficult to resolve. If there are legitimate questions about how to interpret the decedent’s estate planning documents or how to distribute assets in the absence of clear instructions, then the affected family members will need to try to find a way to come to terms.
In these scenarios, it is generally best to begin with private, attorney-led negotiations. This requires each family member involved in the dispute to hire an attorney to represent his or her own best interests. While each family member’s attorney will advocate on his or her behalf, the attorneys will also approach the dispute from the perspective that finding an amicable resolution is likely to be in the best interests of everyone involved. With all family members receiving advice from experienced probate attorneys, they will be able to make informed decisions with a clear understanding of the implications involved.
If attempts to negotiate prove ineffective, then it may make sense to try mediation. Mediation adds structure to the process while still allowing the family members involved to maintain control over the outcome. In mediation, the end goal is still to reach a mutually-agreeable resolution. The mediator acts as a neutral third party and helps guide the parties’ negotiations, relying on his or her past experience in similar cases.
In order for mediation to be worthwhile, everyone involved has to agree to approach the process in good faith. While it might not seem feasible to get those involved to agree to mediation if they can’t agree on how to resolve their issues during probate, mediation is commonly used to resolve family disputes during probate. Even when emotions are running high, the prospect of facing months of costly litigation without a guaranteed outcome can be a strong motivator to consider compromising with an open mind.
What If Reaching an Agreement Isn’t an Option?
But, what if none of these options are feasible? What if one of the family members involved in the dispute is unwilling to give up any ground, or what if everyone involved is convinced that they have the only possible right answer?
In these types of scenarios, some form of legal action may be necessary – at least initially. While most probate disputes among family members are resolved amicably, probate litigation is still fairly common. If one or more family members are convinced that the decedent’s will is unenforceable or that the personal representative needs to be removed, then they might need to seek a judgment from the local probate court. Likewise, if family members cannot agree about who gets what in the absence of a comprehensive list of specific bequests, then going to court may be their only option.
However, even when family members go to court to resolve a probate-related issue, there is still a good chance that their dispute will end with a mutually acceptable agreement. The courts encourage family members to work out their differences amicably, and various aspects of the litigation process (including the amount of time it takes to receive a judgment) incentivizes settlement as well.
What Are My First Steps If I am Dealing with a Family Dispute During Probate?
If you are dealing with a family dispute during probate, your first step is to discuss your situation with an attorney. You should choose a local attorney who has significant experience in probate-related matters. You will want to explain the dispute to your attorney in detail, and you will need to carefully consider each of the options that your attorney puts on the table.
There are various deadlines during the probate process in Florida, and disputes can become more difficult to resolve the longer they linger. So, if you are facing a dispute during probate, you should contact an attorney promptly. If you are in the Jacksonville area, we invite you to contact us for a confidential initial consultation.
Request a Confidential Initial Consultation at Beller & Bustamante, P.L.
Would you like to speak with an attorney about a family dispute during probate in Florida? If so, we would be happy to assist you. To request a confidential consultation with a local attorney at Beller & Bustamante P.L., please call 904-288-4414 or inquire online today.