Many Michigan residents have very little knowledge about what exactly happens to a person's estate after he or she dies. Probate administration, and the word "probate" in general, are commonly tossed around. But, the meaning of these terms may be unclear. Probate litigation is another spin on the term, and potential heirs and other interested parties would do well to understand its implications.
In general, probate litigation refers to a contested matter in probate court. A contested matter could be a dispute between parties or some other type of problem that requires court action to fix. Although not all probate court litigation relates to the estate of a deceased person, many contested probate matters do. Examples of contested matters that often result in probate litigation are situations when a person challenges the validity of will (also known as a will contest); legal suits concerning the construction of a will and trust (a lawsuit which seeks the court's interpretation of a specific term or provision); trust termination, modification and reformation suits; and guardianship proceedings.
In relation to disputes arising after a person's death, one of the situations that commonly results in these disagreements is a second marriage. Although a prenuptial agreement can help avoid the possibility of probate litigation in the future, many people still fail to recognize the benefits of prenuptial agreements or take the necessary steps to create them. Even when the spouses themselves have no dispute, children will often initiate probate litigation after the death of one of their parents, taking a legal position against the other parent's second spouse.
Probate litigation relating to a person's estate can arise any time one or more potential heirs believes that the will or estate plan is not fair or clear. While probate litigation is possible in a range of different situations, certain plans create situations that are more likely to result in probate litigation because they have the potential to create disgruntled family members. For example, if a will or estate plan entirely "cuts out" a child or makes significant differences between the treatment of children, these plans are likely to cause disputes. Similarly, estate plans that attempt to wield too much control or bequests to disliked parties -- such as mistresses -- tend to cause problems.
Source: AmericanBar.org, "A Message to Clients: Avoiding Probate Court Litigation," Karen S. Gerstner, 2008