New Jersey Probate Court Litigation

Serving Clients throughout Bernardsville, NJ, Somerset County and the Surrounding Areas

What is Probate Court Litigation?

In New Jersey, probate matters are handled by two courts: the Surrogate’s Court and the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part. The jurisdiction of the Surrogate’s Court is limited to uncontested matters where no objection, dispute or controversy arises. For example, the probate of a Last Will may be handled in the Surrogate’s Court when the original Will is presented for filing, no doubt or difficulty arises on the face of the Will, and no caveat, dispute or opposition is present. On the other hand, the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part handles all contested probate matters (and certain uncontested matters).

Probate litigation can involve disputes arising while the person of interest is still alive (e.g. guardianships/conservatorships, challenges regarding Powers of Attorney and Living Wills), but more commonly concerns disputes arising after that person has passed away (e.g., challenges regarding Wills and beneficiary designations, the administration of Trusts and Estates, joint bank accounts, lifetime gifts, the enforcement of spousal rights, fiduciary misconduct, and anything else that families can fight about when a loved one dies).

The most common type of probate litigation is contesting the probate of a Will. The probate of a Will may be challenged by any “interested party”. Common grounds for challenging the probate of a Will include forgery, lack of mental capacity, fraud or deception, undue influence, duress, improper execution and revocation. Each basis for challenging the probate of a Will has its own specific elements that must be proven. The burden of proving any of these grounds generally lies upon the contestant; however, the burden of proof can be shifted to the proponent of the Will under certain circumstances. Notably, a Will generally cannot be set aside merely because it provides for unequal (or no) dispositions among a decedent’s family members.

Another common area of probate litigation involves fiduciary accountings of their administration of an Estate or Trust. While most estates and trusts are settled without any formal Court approved accounting, fiduciaries will usually submit an informal accounting to all interested parties and obtain their consent and release thereto. However, an Executor/Administrator/ Trustee may choose or be required to settle the applicable estate/trust with a formal accounting and obtain Court approval before being discharged of any liability/responsibility. Once a fiduciary files their formal accounting, the beneficiaries and other interested parties may file their objections/exceptions to the accounting and/or otherwise challenge the fiduciary’s actions.

One of the best things a person can do to minimize probate litigations is to implement a well thought out and comprehensive estate plan (and then periodically review and update their plan).

Don’t Try to Do It Alone

If you are a beneficiary of, or a fiduciary of, an Estate or Trust, then Varian Law LLC can help represent and protect your interests. Contact us today to learn more.