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Articles Posted in Trust Disputes

Social Distancing and Signing Documents: Can a Beneficiary Act as a Witness?

During COVID-19, we have had to adapt the way we sign estate planning documents while maintaining safe social distancing. Although businesses are slowly reopening and things appear to be getting back to a sense of normal, it is still important to be cautious and keep our exposures to a minimum. One of the strategies Chepenik Trushin LLP has adjusted is to make the estate planning process entirely remote, with phone and video conferences, email communications, and sending estate planning documents through regular or electronic mail with detailed instructions for clients to sign on their own. For some clients, this has worked well, but for others, it has been a challenge to find two witnesses and a notary, which are required for many estate planning documents. A frequent question that has arisen is whether a relative or a beneficiary may serve as the witness to a will or other estate planning documents, such as a trust.

For a number of years, Florida law disfavored beneficiaries under a will from also being witnesses to the will. Under current Florida law, a will or codicil is not invalid simply because the will or codicil is signed by an interested witness. Fla. Stat. § 732.504(2). Based on the Florida statute, a beneficiary can serve as a witness to a will.

How Can you Prove Undue Influence?

For a Will to be valid, certain conditions must be met. The testator must have legal capacity, at least eighteen years old, must have testamentary intent, and the will must not be a product of undue influence or duress. The first two requirements are usually relatively easy issues to resolve, but undue influence and duress is not always clear. As the Supreme Court of Florida explained, “[u]ndue influence is not usually exercised openly in the presence of others, so that it may be directly proved, hence it may be proved by indirect evidence of facts and circumstances from which it may be inferred.”

In In re Estate of Carpenter, the Supreme Court of Florida listed a set of seven, non-exhaustive factors to consider when deciding cases of Undue Influence:

The Long Arm of the Law – Trust Litigation and Out-of-State Beneficiaries

When dealing with trusts, there is a possibility that the potential litigation or present lawsuit involves people from multiple jurisdictions and multiple states. A trust may be created and administered in Florida, but the beneficiaries may live elsewhere. If this is the case, can the beneficiaries still be sued in Florida?

The Southern District of Florida discussed the issue of personal jurisdiction over a party when dealing with an in-state trust and an out of state beneficiary in Abromats v. Abromats. Gloria Abromats, executed a revocable trust while she was residing in Florida. Further amendments were made to Trust, which one of her sons, Clifford, claimed were procured through undue influence over Gloria by his brother Phillip. Phillip lived in Wyoming and received distributions from the trust. Clifford filed suit against Phillip in Florida, but Phillip argued that the court did not have jurisdiction over him in Florida.

Seeking Paternity in Probate: Are You Out of Time?

When an estate enters probate and is being distributed, the distribution is usually between family members. Family members can include spouse, children from the marriage, parent, adopted child, aunt, cousin, etc. If there are issues or questions about the status of these individuals, they are usually litigated after the estate holder passes. But what if you are a child born out-of-wedlock? What status do you have and what rights do you have to the estate?

Under Fla. Stat. § 732.103, any children from the marriage are automatically deemed heirs of the estate, and entitled to a share of the intestate estate. But out-of-wedlock children have to establish paternity if they want to share in the distribution of the estate. But do these individuals have the opportunity to litigate the paternity after the father has passed? The opportunity is there, but it is subject to a statute of limitations under Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(b). The statute imposes a four year limitation for paternity actions generally, starting from the date the individual turns eighteen.

What is my Deadline to Contest a Will in Florida?

Surprisingly, as astounding 55% of adults in the United States do not have a Will or any other sort of estate plan in place. While planning one’s estate certainly makes matters easier for loved ones after death, problems can arise even when one does make a will. There are dozens of reasons one may want to contest a will. Some of these include including lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraud, lack of the required number of witnesses or discovery of a later will. But when one realizes there is an issue with a will, what does one do and how much time does one have to challenge it? Legal actions typically have a statute of limitations. As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, a statute of limitations is the “time frame set by legislation where affected parties need to take action to enforce rights or seeks redress after injury or damage.”

In Florida, the time limitation to challenge a will is statutory. While Florida allows years to pass on claims before barring actions with a statute of limitations, the Florida Legislature only gives three (3) months for someone to contest a will. Florida Statute §733.212 (the “Statute”) outlines the process and deadlines for the filing of objections. It states in relevant part:

Florida Anti-Lapse Statute

When preparing a Will, it is assumed that the beneficiaries that you name will outlive you. If you expect someone to die before you, it would not make sense to leave any of your wealth and assets behind for them. However, unexpected things happen. Unfortunately, testator’s live beyond the life of their beneficiaries all the time. Sometimes, people do not update or even think about their Will for decades and those named years ago as beneficiaries have passed away. What happens to the gift(s) left for someone who is now deceased?

This concept is known as “lapse.” The original, common law understanding of lapse, was that if a beneficiary predeceases the testator, the specific gift will fall back into the residuary estate of the testator, not the estate of the deceased beneficiaries. For example, if the will states “Car to X, everything else to Y,” and X dies before the testator, the car will fall back to the residuary estate and go to Y. If both X and Y die, the testator’s estate will pass through intestacy.

What is Elder financial Exploitation?

The Florida Department of Elder Affairs defines elder financial exploitation as “the illegal or improper use of another individual’s resources for personal profit or gain.”  This exploitation takes on many forms involving deception and/or coercion, including the improper use of a power of attorney.

What is a Power of Attorney (“POA”)?

Legal Capacity and Estate Planning – How to Safeguard a Will from Future Litigation or Contests

When a loved one grows older, ages and declines, their caretakers’ ever growing to-do list can become overwhelming. After dealing with the basic, everyday needs of an aging family member, it may sometimes be easy to overlook the fact that your loved one does not have a valid will.  By not addressing this issue, the task of handling final affairs and estate distribution after their death becomes increasingly more difficult. If you are responsible for someone who is at risk for developing Alzheimer’s, dementia, or any other disease that can affect their mental capacity, it is important that you consult with an estate planning lawyer who can ensure that a proper will is drafted in accordance with the laws of the state of Florida.

Florida courts have held that a will can be properly admitted to probate if the testator was competent at the time the will was executed.  Jervis v. Tucker, 82 So.3d 126 (FL 4th DCA 2002).  A testator will be found to have been competent if they possessed the ability to “mentally understand in a general way the nature and extent of the property to be disposed of, and the testator’s relation to those who would naturally claim a substantial benefit from the will, as well as a general understanding of the practical effect of the will as executed.” American Red Cross v. Estate of Haynsworth, 708 So.2d 602, 605 (FL 3rd DCA 1998). Florida courts will apply these standards and also evaluate the facts specific to a particular case in order to determine if a testator was of “sound mind” when they created the will. Estate planning lawyers play an important role in this process and have the responsibility of ensuring that the testator is legally competent at the time the will is created.

Elder abuse: the farmer population as the next potential target

Florida is a state well-known for its agriculture. In fact, within the United States, it is safe to presume that most people think that the best oranges come from Florida (we certainly think they do). Agriculture is the second most important economic activity in Florida, preceded only by tourism. Agriculture contributes $104 billion in revenue to the state and employs two million people.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University and Portland State University, the average age of farmers is 60 years old. Additionally, it is believed that in the next twenty years, 10 million acres of farmland are going to change ownership. Like all other people, we can expect health issues to arise as our farmers age. Studies suggest that 38% of people who are over 85 years old have dementia or some impairment in their mental faculties.

WILLS, TRUSTS, and ARBITRATION AGREEMENTS

In previous blog posts, we have shown how wills and trusts are favored vehicles when protecting someone’s assets. Perhaps one of the purposes of a well-drafted will or trust is to avoid hearing the judge’s gavel when knowing who gets what part of the inheritance. Unfortunately, contentions amongst the parties may well exist. The good news is that since 2007, parties have another alternative to resolve disputes that arise out of a will or a trust. Florida Law provides the option for parties to have a clause in their will or trust requiring arbitration. See Fla. Stat. § 731.401.

Arbitration, is a private (not state-sponsored) method of resolving disputes. Arbitration is not to be confused with mediation: While mediators help the parties in finding a solution, arbitrators decide a dispute.

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