Demystifying Estate Litigation in the Absence of a Will

March 5, 2024

An Overview of Probate and Intestate Succession Disputes if Someone Dies Without a Will in New Jersey

Demystifying Estate Distribution in the Absence of a Will in New JerseyWhat happens when you die without a will? Your estate (all your assets and debts) must go through a court process called probate. Without a will, your heirs receive your property through intestate succession, meaning a judge will either appoint or approve an estate administrator overseeing your estate, including paying estate creditors and beneficiaries.

Beneficiaries are typically the people designated by law as next of kin, such as biological or adopted children, grandchildren, parents, and siblings. Spouses or domestic or civil union partners and children inherit the estate unless no spouse, partner, or children exist. The percentage each inherits depends on whether the children are from a relationship with the spouse or the deceased’s children from another relationship.

Understanding Inheritance Beyond Immediate Family

After spouses, partners, and children, grandchildren inherit from deceased parents, and so on down the line of succession. When no spouse, partner, children, or grandchildren exist or are alive, the deceased’s parents inherit everything, but if the deceased’s parents are no longer alive, siblings inherit. When no one in the line of succession exists or is alive to inherit, the estate goes to the state by escheat.

Disputes that may Arise when Someone Dies without a Will in New Jersey

The probate process may take a long time to complete, especially if the estate becomes embroiled in disputes. Probates become complicated when the court proceedings become clouded and prolonged due to disputes, typically revolving around unwritten intentions of the deceased or challenges to the administrator’s handling of the estate.

Without a will, the deceased’s wishes may not be fulfilled. For example, the deceased may have wanted a specific person to take care of their estate or to inherit particular items or proceeds. Without a will, the court must approve the most appropriate representative of the estate to oversee what needs to be done to complete the probate process and follow the laws of intestate succession to pass property to heirs or beneficiaries.

Navigating Administrator Roles in NJ Estate Disputes

Typically, a spouse is the one in the administrator role. However, when the deceased dies unmarried, children may be the next logical choice, but that is where a dispute may arise. Unless only one child is the rightful heir, children may dispute who is best to serve as administrator. Only one can serve as administrator. The others must officially renounce their roles as administrators.

The administrator’s role requires gathering up the deceased’s property and debts, making sure the court has all it needs to close the estate so the administrator can distribute the net proceeds of the estate after paying necessary fees and debts. That means the administrator accesses the deceased’s bank accounts, investments, real estate, personal property, essentially everything else the deceased owned. The administrator must be trustworthy to gather up the estate honestly and adequately, completing an inventory of all property for administration.

NJ Property Distribution and Beneficiary Designations

Property that passes through probate intestate must be in the deceased’s name or by named beneficiaries. So, property that typically has a beneficiary designation does not go through probate but passes directly to the beneficiary, such as life insurance benefits, retirement account funds, securities with transfer-on-death designations, and bank accounts that designate a beneficiary payable on death. Real estate held jointly with another person will go to the person named on the title to the property. The administrator must diligently search for property and beneficiary designations as part of their duties.

So, when a dispute about who should be the representative occurs, the probate can extend for months while the court considers the argument and appoints an administrator. The Surrogate Court judge handling the probate is the final arbiter of disputes in litigation within a probate and officially approves an administrator.

Drafting Wills and Trusts as a Way to Prevent NJ Estate Disputes

Disputes may occur even after an administrator’s appointment when heirs challenge the official inventory of assets and debts the administrator presents to the court by filing a complaint for damages due to an administrator’s mishandling of an estate or fraud. Accusations of mistake or fraud may further prolong the probate or continue after the probate closes and run up costs for the estate when attorneys must help resolve the disputes.

Take Control of Your Estate's Future Today by Proactively Drafting Wills and Trusts to Prevent Disputes in New Jersey.Therefore, when a loved one dies intestate, you want to make sure you are the administrator of the estate. More importantly, you want to help your parents, spouse, children, or other family members understand the importance of a will or living trust that contains critical designations of the executor or trustee of their estate and how the estate property and proceeds should be distributed.

Property that is correctly placed in a living trust does not go through a probate but passes directly to the named beneficiaries in the trust in the manner described in that document. A will also contains the deceased’s written executor designation and the explicit wishes of the deceased regarding their possessions.

Who Can Help with Estate Disputes when Someone Dies without a Will in Monmouth County and Ocean County, NJ?

In the absence of a living trust or will, you will need the help of an attorney when litigation is necessary during a probate without a will. A probate attorney is an essential ally from the start of the probate process to the end. At Chamlin, Uliano & Walsh, our experienced estate lawyers can represent your interests in administering the estate by filing the legal documents necessary to the surrogate court for the judge to approve. We can also represent you as administrator or estate beneficiary in any hearings or litigation in the probate.

Of course, our legal team can also assess your specific case involving the absence of a will and inform you as to whether you have a good claim or defense before going through the legal process required to achieve your goals. Our highly skilled and experienced estate litigation attorneys are familiar with the legal research necessary to pursue your probate claims and the successful strategies in court that we can use to protect and advocate for your interests.

When necessary, we will prepare your case for trial by conducting discovery, reviewing the financial documents and other records supporting your claim, and filing the required complaints, responsive pleadings, and motions in court. An experienced probate and estate litigator at our West Long Branch office can represent you in settlement negotiations that are part of the litigation process and prepare legal arguments, witnesses, documents, and experts for a trial. We keep you informed every step of the way so you can make the right decisions. If you have an intestate probate case in Toms River, Holmdel, Middletown, Asbury Park, Point Pleasant, Belmar, Freehold, or other towns in Southern New Jersey, reach out to us today at 732-440-3950 for further guidance and information.

Categorised in: Estate Planning