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Inheritance Disputes

Inheritance Disputes Attorney in Cleveland

The decline or death of a loved one is an incredibly emotional time that often results in stress and disagreement even in the closest of families. 

In far too many cases, families fail to seek experienced legal help, or seek help and guidance far later in the process than they should. In many cases, they mistakenly believe that consulting an attorney will add to the acrimony or make matters worse. However, the job of an experienced Cleveland probate attorney is to help take the emotion out of the process, while ensuring that a client’s rights are protected. 

An experienced probate law firm knows and understands the benefits of keeping emotions in check and will work to professionally mitigate disagreements. When that is not possible, there is obvious need for an attorney to protect your rights anyway. 

Common Estate Settlement Issues

During the process, there are a number of people who will have an outsized role in the process, including conservators, guardians, trustees, administrators and executors. Disagreements about which family member should hold such positions are common. Not seeking experienced help until after you disagree with an appointment or decisions made by someone in such a position means you are already at a disadvantage.

After a loved one passes, the estate settlement process will often proceed both in and out of probate court. Probate court is designed to settle the debts and distribute some assets under court supervision. However, assets held in trust, some real estate held jointly, and assets that are Transferable on Death or Payable on Death may pass to named beneficiaries outside the probate process. 

Common disputes that arise during estate settlement include: 

  • Contested Wills: Last-minute changes to a Will, the presence of more than one Will, exclusion of heirs in a Will, lopsided bequeaths, and Wills that bequeath assets that are Payable on Death or Transferable on Death to a different named beneficiary are among the most common issues. 
  • Intestate Estates: When someone dies without a Will, Ohio law governs distribution of assets, which generally leaves an estate to the closest relatives (spouses, parents, children) and then to more distant relatives. This can result in a number of complications, including non-traditional families, former spouses that never divorced, and same-sex spouses not legally recognized. 
  • Undue influence: Allegations that one or more family members manipulated a decedent in order to gain an advantage. 
  • Fraud: Allegations that an heir or someone appointed to a position of trust, such as a conservator, trustee or administrator, acted fraudulently or not in the best interest of the decedent and his or her estate. 
  • Estate Liquidation: How to liquidate physical assets such as real estate, can cause significant disagreements. 
  • Debts: How and when to settle debts can result in a number of issues, particularly when one or more heirs have “loans” other beneficiaries feel should be repaid. 

Estate Litigation in Ohio

Ohio law aims to settle the affairs of a deceased person in a timely fashion. This means there are very strict timeframes to contest an estate - typically as few as three to six months. Additionally, the process is complicated by the fact many assets may transfer to heirs outside the probate process. Too often, heirs mistakenly believe probate court will protect their rights without the help of an experienced Cleveland probate attorney. 

Typically, if things are acrimonious at the earliest stage of the process, siblings and family members will not resolve those issues during estate settlement. Seeking the help of an experienced estate litigation law firm in Cleveland can both protect your rights and limit the kind of emotional disagreements with family members that can result in long-term damage to your relationships.

Attorney Daniel McGowan has many years of experience in handling some of the country’s largest inheritance disputes.

Contesting a Will or Trust in Ohio

A will or trust can be challenged by an attorney in an Ohio probate proceeding on a number of grounds.

  • Lack of Proper Formalities. Proper execution of a testamentary instrument requires that it be signed by the testator and witnessed by two witnesses, who also sign. A will or trust can be contested on the grounds that it was not properly drafted, signed, or witnessed in accordance with the applicable requirements.
  • Lack of Capacity. Under Ohio law, a testator is required to have mental competency to make a will or trust and to understand the nature of his or her assets and the people to whom the assets are going to be distributed. A will or trust can be declared void if lack of capacity can be proven. Typically, incompetence is established through a prior medical diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or psychosis, or through the testimony of witnesses as to the irrational conduct of the deceased around the time the will or trust was executed. 
  • Undue Influence. Undue influence occurs when the testator is compelled or coerced to execute a will or trust as a result of improper pressure exerted on him or her, typically by a relative, friend, trusted advisor, or health care worker. In many cases, the undue influencer will upset a long established estate plan where the bulk of the estate was to pass to the direct descendants or other close relatives of the decedent. Some undue influencers are new friends or acquaintances of the decedent who “befriend” the decedent in the last months or years of life, typically after the decedent has suffered some decline in mental ability. In other situations, one child of the decedent, often a caregiver will coerce the decedent to write the other children out of the will. Undue influencers can also be health care workers or live in aides who implicitly or explicitly threaten to withhold care unless the estate plan is changed in favor of the health care worker. 
  • Insane Delusion.  Insane delusion occurs when the testator, against all evidence to the contrary, believes something that is not true, and creates or changes an estate planning document (will or trust) based on the insane delusion.  For example, the testator could believe that she has been abandoned by a child and disinherits the child.  In reality, the child visits his mother every day.  The will or trust could be set aside as an insane delusion.
  • Fraud.  Estate fraud occurs when a beneficiary of a will or trust causes the testator to make or change a will based on misrepresentations.  For example, an unscrupulous child could tell a parent lies about a sibling to cause that sibling to be disinherited.  Examples of such fraud could be that the sibling has been convicted of a crime, has engaged in illegal or immoral acts, or has said derogatory things about the testator. If the will or trust has been prepared based on the fraud, the will can be set aside in a successful will or trust contest.
The time for contesting a will or trust in Ohio is short. Therefore, prompt action is required to bring your lost inheritance back to life. Not just a will can be challenged under these grounds. A trust can be challenged under the same grounds, as well as a real estate deed or a beneficiary designation on a financial account. There are many situations where the undue influencer will trick or persuade a weakened person to sign over valuable real estate, a bank account, or other property directly to the influencer, in the hope that they will have left the scene before the wrongdoing can be discovered. Sometimes, the undue influencer will be added as a beneficiary on bank accounts in place of the heirs to whom the decedent intended the account to pass.

If the wrongdoing is discovered prior to the victim's passing, a common way for a loved one to start to clean up the situation will be to create a guardianship, which will allow the guardian to use the court's jurisdiction to reclaim assets that were fraudulently removed. If an estate plan was also changed because of undue influence, the guardianship will also allow evidence to be collected for use at a subsequent will contest proceeding. Attorney Daniel McGowan handles will and trust contest cases on an hourly basis, and in some situations will take a will contest case on a contingency fee basis or other alternative billing arrangement.

In some cases, a claim for tortious interference with expectancy should be filed instead of the will contest or in addition to the will contest.

If there are assets outside of probate that need to be challenged, those can be contested as well. For example, a life insurance beneficiary designation can be challenged.

If you believe that you or a loved one may have been improperly cut out of a will or otherwise deprived of a rightful inheritance, or you have questions about a will contest, trust or estate, please call the Ohio probate lawyer Daniel McGowan at (216) 242-6054 for a consultation. The initial call is free.

Daniel McGowan represents clients in probate and estate matters throughout the Cleveland area, including Lakewood, Rocky River, Fairview Park, Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, East Cleveland, Linndale, Brooklyn, Parma, Brook Park. Newburgh Heights, Cuyahoga Heights, Brooklyn Heights, Warrensville Heights, Maple Heights, Garfield Heights, Bratenahl and Euclid.
Law Offices of Daniel McGowan, LLC is a full-service law practice, with extensive experience in the areas of litigation and trial practice, elder law, and probate law and trust law. The information on this website, however, is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Each legal situation is unique and you should consult with a reputable attorney regarding your specific circumstances.
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