Maryland Estate Litigation

Category: Wills

“For reasons which are known to them” – Disinheriting a Child

by David A. (Andy) Hall

The decision to disinherit a child is generally not made lightly and neither should be the approach to planning.  Careful consideration as to why a parent wishes to exclude a child from her estate planning is necessary prior to preparing the documents.  There may be ways to arrive at alternative solutions that achieve many of the client’s goals without risk of litigation that disinheriting can bring (which I will cover in part 2 of disinheriting a child).

Some may want to disinherit because they want to create incentives for their children to develop a strong work ethic. This is the approach that Sting intends to take with his children.[1]  A number of celebrities, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, have similar ideas to Sting.[2]  Celebrities have also disinherited children for reasons that were (allegedly) known only to the children.[3]  Leona Helmsley famously left $12 million for the care of her dog Trouble while also disinheriting two of her grandchildren “for reasons which are known to them.”[4]

Whatever the reason or reasons for choosing to disinherit, a diligent approach to the estate planning and the documentation of the estate planning is necessary.  It is relatively easy to challenge a will.  In Maryland, a Petition to Caveat a Will (a will contest) is a notice pleading.[5]  The Petition needs to contain “an allegation that the instrument challenged is not a valid will . . . and the grounds for challenging its validity.”[6]  In simpler terms, one challenging a will (the “Caveator”) needs to say that the will is not valid and offer a laundry of reasons that it may not be valid.  The list of reasons does not need to be supported by facts.  Many practitioners describe the grounds for challenging a will as including the “kitchen sink” because due to the six-month statute of limitations it is necessary to plead every single possible cause of action or it will be barred despite further evidence that may be generated.

“For reasons which are known to them” is a common refrain in estate plans that disinherit.  This language, however, does no favors for litigation counsel who ultimately defend the will against a disgruntled heir.  The disgruntled heir inevitably has nary a clue as to what the cryptic language is referring to; indeed, they will describe their relationship with the disinheriting parent in glowing terms.

Litigation counsel will then turn to the drafting attorney’s file and look for clues as to the testator/testatrix’s intent for disinheriting a child or grandchild.  In a will contest, the drafting attorney’s file is no longer privileged upon the death of the testator.[7]  Experience has shown that drafting attorneys do not always have the best habits of taking notes when meeting with their estate planning clients.  Even when they did take copious notes, the estate planning file has a tendency to winnow down through the years where the only remaining documents are usually only the final draft or executed version of a will.  The attrition of an estate planning file can seem suspicious to an outsider, but it also makes sense from a logical perspective.  Successful attorneys have thousands of clients that they represent over the course of a career, which generates reams of paper.  As the files build up, a game of survivor begins to take place.  Documents may be destroyed in accordance with a firm’s file retention policy or those documents may be returned to the client upon the conclusion of the representation or the drafting attorney’s retirement from practice.  Absent explanation in the drafting attorney’s notes, litigation counsel is forced to rely on other contemporaneous documents and the testimony of those that knew the testator/testatrix – namely their children or grandchildren – those who stand to lose out on a portion of their inheritance.

The attorney representing the Caveator can attack the lack of evidence and cryptic words of the testator/testatrix in an attempt to extract a settlement from the estate.  Many times a settlement will make sense because of the risk involved in litigating any case and also the attorney’s fees that will be expended by the estate in defending against the caveat.  A little additional care by the planning attorney in maintaining their file or documenting the reasons for the caveat in the first place can go a long way in protecting the client’s ultimate wishes for the disposition of their assets.

We will discuss some other approaches to estate planning where the client wishes to disinherit a child in our next blog in this series.  Should you wish to discuss your estate plan with an attorney who has not only drafted, but also litigated a will or trust, then do not hesitate to call.

David A. (Andy) Hall, Esq.
King|Hall LLC
5300 Dorsey Hall Drive
Suite 107
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042
410-696-2045

andy@kh.legal

 

[1] http://time.com/money/2922231/sting-disinherit-will-kids-heirs-inheritance/

[2] http://time.com/money/2913542/10-other-celebs-besides-sting-whove-cut-their-kids-out-of-their-wills/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/may/25/biography.film

[4] https://static01.nyt.com/packages/pdf/nyregion/city_room/20070829_helmsleywill.pdf

[5] See Md. Rule 6-431.

[6] Id.

[7] See Benzinger v. Hemler, 134 Md. 581, 107 A. 355 (1919).

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“Waiting In Vain” For Your Estate Plan

by barrettrkingpc

As a high school student in Sussex County, Delaware, I remember career day where an attorney came in to my classroom and explained what he did for a living. I was 14, maybe 15, and had no idea what a Last Will, an estate, or probate was, not to mention a revocable living trust. As a means of engaging the class, the lawyer gave us all a copy of the New Castle County, Delaware Robert Nesta Marley Probate Petition. I knew that name!

This particular decedent happened to be Bob Marley, known universally as the face of reggae music. It turns out that Bob Marley owned real estate in Wilmington, Delaware just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It also happens that he spent about a year of his life in Wilmington in the mid 1960s, working at a Chrysler plant, the inspiration for his song “Night Shift“, but that is another story for another site to discuss.

I did not realize that day that I would grow up to become an estate and trust litigation attorney, but I was certainly a fan of Bob’s music and could not believe that he had such ties to the small state of Delaware, especially considering he was Jamaican and, on top of that, incredibly famous.

It took me years to realize that the only reason Bob Marley’s heirs had to administer a probate estate in Delaware was because he owned property in Wilmington – specifically located at 2311 Tatnall Street, a residential row home across from a basketball court, and 2320 Market Street, which he owned with his mother, Cedella Booker, as a “tenant in common,” which means that she owned half but Bob’s half would pass to his heirs according either to his Last Will & Testament or the law of intestacy.

Had the reggae legend utilized a revocable living trust and titled his property appropriately, I would have never received this artifact some years after he died of cancer and his convoluted family tree became part of the public record of Delaware’s probate courts. By using a revocable trust, one can avoid probate and title real property in jurisdictions outside your domicile in the trust and thus avoid probate and the expense of retaining local attorneys to handle a portion of your estate. Especially, in the instant case, where you have not had substantial ties to a certain state in almost twenty years before dying (Bob Marley died of cancer, in Miami, in 1981).

It is seemingly epidemic of celebrities to fail to plan their estates. In Marley’s case he died young, in his thirties, but he had many children. Based on this small piece of his estate’s puzzle, there is no way to confirm that he lacked a will or trust, but it can be confirmed that his mother did not automatically inherit the property she shared ownership of with Bob. His surviving kin, a wife and ten children, would take partial ownership of the property on Market Street with his mother, who was also residing in Miami (and was at his bedside) at the time of his death.

Clients are well advised to consider all of their property, wherever it may be located, and to talk to an attorney about their specific intentions for certain assets. Did Bob Marley intend for his mother to end up owning half of the property on Market Street in Wilmington with ten other people? Not very likely.

What about Prince? Did he wish for his siblings to take fragmented ownership and control of his tightly protected – during his lifetime – intellectual property? Is Paisley Park to become a museum because he wanted it, or because estranged family need to drum up cash to settle the expensive confusion of administering his under-planned estate? Celebrities are frequent casualties of failing to plan their estates. Take the time to meet with an attorney that you trust to plan properly.

I may be the only lawyer in the world who listens to “I Shot The Sheriff” and worries about the victim’s legal documents, but the importance of proper planning still matters, lest you “Stir It Up” with a mess that gets left behind for your loved ones to handle.

For any who are interested, the properties mentioned in this article are today nondescript and unmarked, having fallen into history’s selective memory.

Barrett R. King, Esq.
King|Hall LLC
410-696-2405
5300 Dorsey Hall Drive
Suite 107
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042
barrett@kh.legal
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Investing in Family

by barrettrkingpc

Throughout the years, we are constantly taught, admonished, reminded that we must invest. We must invest in our education by focusing on our studies or by taking student loans to complete our degree so that we can increase our earning potential and job satisfaction. We are taught that we must invest in our retirement by saving a portion of our earnings in an IRA or 401(k). We eventually, for those of us who have them, invest in our children by saving for their own education and by making sure to catch their baseball or field hockey games even if it means going back to the job or office and pulling a late night as soon as the game ends.

Looking back, as teenagers we start our flight from the nest and comforting wing of our parents or guardians with our desire to establish independence. An important part of our passage into adulthood is separating ourselves from those who invested in us so that we can invest in ourselves. And, before we know it, our parents have aged into retirement. To your eyes, are they enjoying themselves? Do they travel? Do they engage in hobbies? Are they experiencing what you grew up hearing them say they would hope to experience in retirement? Do they get to spend time with you or with the grandchildren? Are they getting to relish in the satisfaction of seeing you thrive on their investment and sacrifice in you?

Eventually, the caregiver becomes the cared for. It is worth talking to your parent or guardian about long term care insurance or whether they saved enough for retirement to self-insure for anticipated lifetime medical and long term care expenses. It can affect your ability to invest in your own children or in your own retirement if you have to take time away from work or your young family to become a caregiver or untangle a legal morass where your parents did not properly plan.

Help your parents plan for themselves. You are a major part of your parents’ life story and their future. We spend such a large part of our lives doing the things we do not want to do – chores, commuting, planning, even sleeping – that we should truly enjoy the small moments. And one way to ensure you and those who invested in you will get to do just that is to talk about estate planning and investing for the years to come.

Barrett R. King, Esq.
King|Hall LLC
410-696-2405
5300 Dorsey Hall Drive
Suite 107
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042
barrett@kh.legal
457526bfb82f4540ba08c7cce8e707dd

Trying to Prevent Estate Litigation through In Terrorem Clauses is Often an Empty Gesture

by David A. (Andy) Hall

Sometimes an estate client will anticipate that there will be a challenge to her estate after she dies –  and frankly if there is a house, then in this area its generally worth at least a couple hundred thousand dollars, thus, it’s worth fighting over.  Perhaps her children do not get along. Or there is a family business in which one relative has spent many years alongside to build and grow, and the client wishes to leave that relative a larger share of the business.  In an effort to prevent challenges to her will, a client may ask her estate planning attorney to utilize an in terrorem clause.  These can also be known as “no-contest” clauses.  An in terrorem clause essentially states that when someone objects or attacks the will (through the appropriate legal process), then the challenger will no longer receive a legacy or residual distribution that they otherwise would have received through the will.

Under Maryland law, an in terrorem clause in a will is void where there exists probable cause for instituting law suit.  Md. Code, Est. & Trusts Art. § 4-413.  Someone considering whether or not to challenge a will should consult with an experienced estates and trusts attorney to determine whether there exists probable cause to challenge a will.

An in terrorem clause is ineffective from preventing a challenge by someone who is disinherited as there is no stick (or carrot) to make the challenger think twice prior to challenging.  If they have nothing to lose, then there is nothing to prevent them from hiring an estate litigation attorney to challenge the will.

A no-contest or in terrorem clause may still be a good idea to include in your estate planning documents depending on your particular family dynamics.  While no clause can prevent all estate litigation, these clauses may be useful in preventing meritless litigation, i.e., a baseless challenge designed to extract a monetary settlement.  In addition, it may be a useful tool for your personal representative to use when negotiating a settlement with a will challenger as it can make estate litigation an all-or-nothing proposition.

No one wants to think about their family fighting over their estate.  Having a thorough and frank conversation with your estate planning attorney can help identify red flags and allow the planning attorney to attempt to draft around those challenges.  One such solution is appointing a third party as personal representative because the disinterested person can help prevent the estate administration from becoming a battle ground for long simmering family disputes.  Avoiding estate and trust litigation before it starts can save your family many tens of thousands of dollars in costs.

David A. (Andy) Hall, Esq.
King|Hall LLC
410-696-2045
5300 Dorsey Hall Drive
Suite 107
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042
andy@kh.legal

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Removing the Personal Representative of an Estate

by David A. (Andy) Hall

Here is the scenario: You are a legatee under a will, which means that you are entitled to “receive any property disposed of by will, including property disposed of in a residuary clause and assets passing by the exercise by the decedent of a testamentary power of appointment”.  See Maryland Code, Estates and Trusts Art., § 1-101(l)-(m).  The personal representative (the “PR”) (or what’s known as an executor in other states) is behaving in a way that you do not agree with.  Your question is whether or not you can have that PR removed.

The Maryland Code in Estates and Trusts Article, §6-306 states that there are six causes for the removal of a PR:

  1. Misrepresenting facts leading to her appointment
  2. Willfully disregarding the order of the court
  3. Incapable or unable to discharge her duties
  4. Mismanagement of property
  5. Failing to maintain an effective designation of a local agent (this is when the PR is not a resident of the State of Maryland)
  6. Failing to perform a material duty of the office

Whether or not a PR’s conduct rises to the level of a court removing that person requires an intensive factual analysis to be performed by your estate litigation lawyer.  Some examples of conduct that could lead to the removal of the PR include: attempting to admit the wrong (or a prior) will to probate, which could arise in a situation where one sibling is in one will and then subsequently left out of the estate in a subsequent will.  They would have a strong desire to gloss over the existence of the subsequent will.

The willful disregard of an order of the court is easier than some people may assume.  If the PR has failed to file an accounting within the proper time, then the court will likely issue a show cause order requiring the PR to either file the accounting or to demonstrate why the accounting has not been filed.  Perhaps the PR did not enlist the help of an estate administration attorney, then they could easily misunderstand these deadlines and what they mean.  Thus, innocently missing a deadline could lead to disregarding an order of the court and be grounds for removal.

If you believe that the PR of the estate is mishandling her duties, then you should contact an estate litigation attorney to have them evaluate the facts of your case.  The last thing that you want is to have bad acting PR wasting away assets that your family member worked hard to accumulate, spent time and money to effectively plan for the disposition of those assets after their passing, and then not be distributed in accordance with their estate plan.

David A. (Andy) Hall, Esq.
King|Hall LLC
410-696-2045
5300 Dorsey Hall Drive
Suite 107
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042
andy@kh.legal

457526bfb82f4540ba08c7cce8e707dd

Appointing co-personal representatives is a recipe for trouble

by David A. (Andy) Hall

Ask your estate planning attorney whether you it is advisable to appoint co-personal representatives.  Co-personal representatives are two (or more) people named as personal representative simultaneously.   Successor personal representatives are named as backups in case your first choice is unable to serve whether by reason of death, incapacity or unwillingness to serve. You should always name at least one successor personal representative, but two is preferable.

In a co-personal representative situation, Maryland law by default requires the concurrence of all personal representatives in order to act on behalf of the estate.  This can lead to issues with the practical aspects of managing the estate, or it can create a friction point in an already tense family situation.

You should consider the motivations for wanting co-personal representatives. If you think that one person might not be able to handle the job alone, you are probably better off appointing someone else altogether. In general, one person will end up doing the majority of the work, but will be hampered by seeking the concurrence/assent of the other personal representative.

If there is a family issue, you can always appoint someone outside of the family. When there is a family dynamic where there is distrust, estrangement, or other issues, then the appointment of co-personal representatives may only serve to exacerbate the situation.

In short, appointing co-personal representatives can lead to unnecessary delay, arguments, or even litigation. It is best to name one trusted individual to serve as personal representative, and name at least one trusted successor.  Help avoid estate and trust litigation before it ever happens by contacting your estate planning attorney.  Make sure your attorney can competently guide you through not only proper tax planning and asset protection, but also provide counsel to avoid litigation before it starts.

David A. (Andy) Hall, Esq.
King|Hall LLC
410-696-2045
5300 Dorsey Hall Drive
Suite 107
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042
andy@kh.legal

457526bfb82f4540ba08c7cce8e707dd

WHY WE ASK YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER TO LEAVE THE ROOM WHEN YOU ARE SIGNING YOUR WILL

by David A. (Andy) Hall

Understanding Undue Influence

The sad reality that even with the best prepared estate plan there can be instances where a family member, or some other individual challenges your will after your death.  Often times, if you have enough resources to carefully prepare your estate plan, then you have enough resources for descendants to fight over.  When a person decides to undertake the process to challenge the validity of a will, they are called a Caveator and the process by which they challenge the will is called a Caveat.  These proceedings generally start with the Orphan’s Court for the county where the Decedent (the person who died) was domiciled (where they lived).  There are a variety of bases to caveat a will, but one that comes up again and again is undue influence.

 The Maryland Court of Appeals identified seven factors to undue influence in Moore v. Smith, 321 Md. 347, 353 (1990):

  1. The benefactor and beneficiary are involved in a relationship of confidence and trust;
  2. The will contains a substantial benefit to the beneficiary;
  3. The beneficiary caused or assisted in the effecting the execution of the will;
  4. There was an opportunity to exert influence;
  5. The will contains an unnatural disposition;
  6. The bequests constitute a change from a former will; and
  7. The testator was highly susceptible to undue influence.

Factor three, which is the beneficiary caused or assisted in effecting the execution of the will, is the reason that we ask your friend, relative, or caregiver to leave the room when you are signing your Last Will and Testament.  We know from experience that if there is a challenge to your will, then Caveator will ask who was present at the signing of the will.  They will point to the presence of so and so as to why the will should not be admitted to probate.  Why have your family suffer through expensive legal proceedings and potentially derail your carefully chosen estate plans when we can take proactive steps during your planning to prevent these problems many years before they arise?

David A. (Andy) Hall, Esq.
King|Hall LLC
410-696-2045
5300 Dorsey Hall Drive
Suite 107
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042
andy@kh.legal

457526bfb82f4540ba08c7cce8e707dd