The disposition of estates and trusts can often result in disputes that end up in court, particularly when there is significant family wealth at stake.
As estate planning becomes a more complex and specialized field, involving tax and financial plans to minimize taxes and maximize economic gain, the human aspect of passing money from one generation to the next is often overlooked. Problems arise when there are conflicting interpretations of a deceased person's wishes, if assets are left to unrelated parties or if family members have conflicting opinions about what to do with family real estate and property.
Fiduciary litigation, a fast growing area of legal work, involves various kinds of disputes that can arise in connection with a will, trust, guardianship, power of attorney, or other situation in which someone is responsible for managing and distributing money and property that is to benefit someone else. Members of our Estates and Trusts Litigation Practice Group are seasoned attorneys who have handled multiple types of disputes, including:
- The standard of care and duties applicable to fiduciaries, meaning agents, guardians, executors, and trustees
- Compensation paid to fiduciaries
- Will contests – challenging or defending the validity of a will, which often involves claims that a will was procured by undue influence or fraud
- Surcharge actions – court proceedings to have a fiduciary personally charged for improper conduct
- Questions and disputes involving wealth transfer taxation, including federal estate and gift tax and state inheritance taxes
- Court proceedings involving charitable organizations and charitable gifts, including charitable trusts, fundamental changes in charitable organizations, and disputes among competing charitable interests
- Mediation, an emerging approach to resolution of trust and estate disputes that allows parties, using a skilled facilitator, to fashion their own solutions
- Court proceedings to seek to remove an executor or trustee or other fiduciary
- Unauthorized gifts, self-dealing, and conflict of interest claims arising when one person is managing another's money often under a power of attorney or a joint bank account
- Special needs trusts – for managing the assets of a severely injured person
Understanding Our Clients' Needs
Our many years of experience place us at the forefront of large, full service law firms representing parties in many types of fiduciary disputes. Successful representation in wealth transfer disputes requires not only the skills, instincts, and experience of the courtroom lawyer, but also fluency with the law of estates, trusts, charitable organizations, and wealth transfer taxation. The value we add only begins here, however. We also listen carefully to our clients. What are their real motivations and objectives? Can we devise a solution that will allow our clients to feel that they have succeeded? What family dynamics are at play? Would there come a time during the litigation process when an alternative approach, such as arbitration or mediation, might be helpful?
Over the decades, we have helped our clients achieve success in a large number of significant court cases. We recently have tried or successfully settled the following kinds of cases:
- Litigation, including trial and appeal, over the interpretation and funding of a trust holding valuable commercial real estate
- Representation of family members and other beneficiaries in various litigation disputes involving the transfer of wealth under a will or trust
- Litigation over the interpretation or validity of wills and trust instruments involving tens of millions of dollars
- Representation of charitable trusts, trustees, and beneficiaries in various court proceedings, including disputes over the proper use of funds, the disposition of charitable assets when a charity ceases to exist, and deviation from the stated wishes of the donor
- Planning and negotiating wealth transfer solutions to reach a settlement before litigation begins
Mediation and Arbitration
Mediation, using a trained facilitator to help parties fashion their own solution, is a relatively new approach to resolving a fiduciary dispute. Mediation is particularly valuable in situations where important non-legal issues are factors. We understand that there often are significant emotional and relational aspects of a dispute, particularly among family members, and we are experienced at guiding our clients through those thickets. When one of the goals is to preserve an ongoing relationship, mediation is often an effective alternative to litigation.
- April 20, 2009