Some of the most common types of disputes arising after a decedent’s death are property disputes, which are disputes concerning rights of ownership and/or possession of assets.
The attorneys at Keystone regularly litigate disputes over property, so they possess the experience, knowledge and skills to help you achieve your desired outcome in a property dispute matter. Keep reading to learn more about our property dispute services. If you have further questions, call Keystone today to schedule your free consultation and devise an individualized approach to your case.
Recovering Property Taken Before Death: The most common dispute we handle is one where we are seeking recovery property that was wrongfully taken, typically through either undue influence of the decedent or as a result of the decedent’s incompetence. For example, you are an estate beneficiary. A decedent provided for their house to pass to you in their will; however, before dying, the decedent transferred title to the property to someone else. You believe that the decedent may have been unduly influenced by the current owner of the home to transfer them the property. You could benefit from the help of a property dispute lawyer to not only find evidence to prove your claim, but also to recover the property and damages.
Recovery of Property: One of the most common types of property disputes our probate firm handles is seeking the recovery of property that was taken either through undue influence or as a result of the decedent’s incompetence. Recovery of property matters can also occur in the context of guardianships, conservatorships and powers of attorney.
Examples of recovery of property matters:
The adult children of an incapacitated adult had stolen thousands of dollars from their parent, which their attorney-in-fact discovered while accounting on the principal’s behalf. The attorney-in-fact is seeking to recover the stolen funds from the children.
Community Property Disputes: This type of property dispute occurs when title to a community property asset is in a deceased spouse’s name, and the deceased spouse is leaving it in a will or trust to a third party without their spouse’s consent. Surviving spouses have a right to recover their community interest in the asset.
Examples of community property disputes:
Incomplete Real Estate Transactions: When a decedent had entered into a contract with a third party to buy or sell real estate, but they died prior to completing the transaction, it is considered an incomplete real estate transaction. The executor or trustee (on behalf of the decedent) or the third party can enforce the terms of the contract and have the transaction completed.
Examples of incomplete real estate transactions:
Unfunded Trusts: Property disputes can arise if a decedent created a trust and assigned property to it using a trust instrument, but failed to fund the trust before they died. For a trust to be considered funded, titles to property must be transferred into the trust’s name.
Examples of unfunded trusts:
Promise to Transfer Property at Death: If a decedent had previously entered into an agreement with a person or entity where there promised to transfer property upon their death, but neither their will nor trust provides for the property to be transferred, the person or entity to whom the property was promised can seek to enforce the terms of the agreement they made with the decedent.
Examples of promises to transfer property at death:
Forcing the Sale of Jointly Owned Property: When a property has several owners, but one or more of those owners are seeking to terminate their interests in the property, a type of lawsuit known as a partition action can be brought to resolve the dispute. The court cannot generally force a party to maintain ownership of a property they no longer want, but it can help the parties to reach buyout deal or fairly divide the property, whether physically or through proceeds from a sale.
Examples of forcing the sale of jointly owned property:
While these examples are by no means an exhaustive list of the types of property disputes that can arise in probate, they can help you determine whether you have a property dispute on your hands that requires legal action. It is best to consult with a lawyer as soon as you become aware of an issue over assets, because once administration concludes and assets are distributed to beneficiaries, it can be difficult to recover property.
There are many contexts in which property disputes can arise for heirs and beneficiaries of estates and trusts. If they are being accused of having financially abused the decedent to misappropriate their property, beneficiaries or heirs may find themselves defending a property dispute. It is also possible that beneficiaries and heirs could find themselves in a dispute with each other if, for example, siblings jointly inherit property that one sibling wants to sell and the other sibling wants to keep. Keystone can help protect heirs’ and beneficiaries’ inheritances and enforce their rights.
Executors and administrators are often required to litigate on behalf of the estate if they suspect that a beneficiary, heir or third party has damaged or misappropriated its assets. They may also find themselves having to litigate if, for example, there is a proposed sale of estate property, and there is a beneficiary residing in that property that they either need to collect rent from or evict. Regardless of why an executor or administrator may have to litigate on behalf of an estate, the team at Keystone is well-equipped to help.
If a trustee believes a beneficiary, heir or third party to have caused harm to trust assets, it is generally their responsibility to bring a property claim on behalf of the trust. They may also find themselves completing transactions on behalf of the trust, such as funding it, if the settlor of the trust died prior to completing the tasks themselves. Keystone has the experience to help trustees with property claims, regardless of where on the spectrum they fall.
Because California is a community property state, surviving spouses are generally entitled to at least 50% of all assets acquired over the course of a marriage by either spouse, with limited exceptions. If the deceased spouse is trying to dispose of more than their 50% share of community assets through their will or trust, the surviving spouse may wish to bring a property claim to enforce their community property rights. Another scenario that occasionally arises in the context of spouses is that they become embroiled in family disputes over property with children or other relatives who are accusing them of financial abuse. Keystone can assist spouses with their property dispute matters regardless of what side of the dispute they are on.
Third parties may find themselves engaged in a property dispute if they have a claim to property belonging to a decedent’s estate or trust, or if an estate or trust has brought a property claim against them. For example, a decedent’s former caretaker may have to defend a property claim if the executor is accusing them of stealing valuable objects from the decedent’s home. Conversely, the decedent could have clearly indicated in writing that they wished for the caretaker to inherit those same items, which the executor is arguing should be distributed as part of the estate. Keystone can help third parties to both defend property claims and bring property claims if they believe they have a right to property belonging to an estate or trust.
Keystone’s client was the sister of a decedent who was being financially abused by his supposed caregivers before he died. First, Keystone assisted the client with getting appointed as the administrator of his $50 million estate and later with investigating the ways in which he had been exploited financially. It turned out that that the decedent’s caregivers had unduly influenced him and defrauded him in order to steal millions of dollars’ worth of money and property from him. Ultimately, Keystone’s probate lawyers were able to help the estate recover more than $2 million in stolen money and property, and obtain a judgment for an additional $1 million. Read full case study.
Keystone’s client was the decedent’s closest living heir, but they had suspiciously not been named as a beneficiary in the decedent’s estate plan. Instead, it was the decedent’s caregiver and former financial adviser who inherited everything. Upon investigating, Keystone learned that the caregiver had the decedent allegedly sign multiple estate planning documents that named her as the sole beneficiary when he ostensibly lacked the mental competence to do so. Ultimately, Keystone reached a favorable settlement for its client that allowed the client to recover a significant share of the decedent’s assets. Read full case study.
Keystone represented a client in her 70s who unknowingly created an irrevocable trust while overly medicated by her son. As a result of being unduly influenced, she appointed her son as the trustee of her trust. The son proceeded to use the powers granted to him to misappropriate the trust’s assets, which the client relied on to survive. At the initial hearing, Keystone’s probate attorneys persuaded the court to immediately suspend the son as trustee and replace him with a private professional fiduciary. Later, they managed to invalidate the trust and recover the stolen assets for its client to once again control. Read full case study.
Keystone represented two grandchildren of the settlors of the trust. The trust had named the settlor’s daughter (the clients’ mother) and her three children (two of which were Keystone’s clients) as equal beneficiaries of a real property held by the trust. After the settlors died in 2015, the clients’ mother took over as successor trustee and transferred the real property Keystone’s clients were supposed to jointly inherit with their mother and sibling first to herself and then entirely to the other sibling—an action that effectively disinherited the clients. Keystone’s probate attorneys filed an 850 Petition seeking to recover the real property for the trust, as well as damages against the trustee. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of Keystone’s clients, ordering for the property to be transferred back into the trust and confirming Keystone’s clients as beneficiaries.
Keystone represented the daughters of a deceased settlor in an action to recover property wrongfully transferred out of a trust from which they were supposed to inherit. The trust had been created jointly by husband-and-wife settlors and provided for 50% of the trust estate to fund a “bypass trust,” which was irrevocable and to be distributed to Keystone’s clients upon the death of the surviving spouse, the decedent’s husband. The husband did not create or fund the bypass trust and instead treated the entire trust as if it were his own property, even transferring assets out of the trust after getting remarried to fund a new trust, which did not provide the clients with as significant of inheritances as they were supposed to receive under the bypass trust. Keystone filed a petition seeking the return of all the assets the husband had removed from the bypass trust and ultimately secured a favorable settlement for its clients that provided each with a substantial inheritance.
Our lawyers work on property dispute cases day in and day out, so they have the experience to effectively enforce your rights, regardless of what side of a property dispute you are on.
Members of our team have earned numerous accomplishments and accolades, including:
We specialize in all varieties of property dispute matters, commonly serving:
Maybe. Keystone’s probate attorneys are experienced in investigating incidences of financial abuse against decedents, conservatees, minors and more. We can generally inspect financial documents and other evidence to find the potential culprits; however, coming to us with an idea about the nature of the financial abuse committed, as well as about who the perpetrator of the abuse is can definitely speed up the process.
It is generally easier to detect financial abuse committed by persons close the decedent, such as their family members and friends. If, for example, you are seeking to recover stolen funds from third-party scammers who operate via the internet, resolving your case may be an uphill battle.
Occasionally. Recovering assets that have already been distributed to beneficiaries is challenging, as the beneficiaries may have already sold or transferred the assets, which they would have been entitled to do as the owner of those assets. Nevertheless, under certain circumstances, it may be possible to recover assets that have already been distributed. Keystone, for example, has successfully recovered for its clients assets with beneficiary designations—such as bank accounts and life insurance policies—that were transferred directly to beneficiaries upon the owner’s death. In an ideal world, however, property dispute matters related to decedents’ estates and trusts should be brought before any distributions have been made.
Due to the rise of DIY estate planning, it often happens that a decedent’s will and trust instruments list the same asset. While such errors can be avoided by involving an estate planning attorney from the start, once a decedent dies, it is too late to go back and fix them; therefore, conflicts may arise in relation to whether the asset should be distributed as a part of the decedent’s estate to estate beneficiaries or as a part of the decedent’s trust to trust beneficiaries.
In general, if the asset at issue had been funded into the decedent’s trust (i.e., title to the asset had been transferred into the name of the trust), then the trust’s right to the asset will supersede the estate’s right to the asset. This is because a trust is a separate entity from the decedent or the estate. Conversely, if the asset at issue had not been funded into the trust, it would be regarded as belonging to the decedent’s estate. Ultimately, the executor or trustee can try to use an 850 Petition to confirm whether the asset is an estate asset or trust asset.
It depends. If it is proven that property was wrongfully taken (e.g., through undue influence or fraud), then there is a good chance the court will require the financial abuser to pay for the opposing side’s attorney’s fees and costs, and possibly even punitive damages. Likewise, if the financial abuser was included in the decedent’s will or trust, the court may move to disinherit them. However, if a property dispute does not involve misappropriated property or another form of wrongdoing, both sides will likely be required to cover their own legal costs.
By scheduling a free consultation, our lawyers will be able to provide a more concrete answer about legal costs after learning the facts of your case.
If a financial abuse victim is still alive and competent, they will have to bring their own property dispute to recover any funds or property they lost to the abuse. If the financial abuse victim is alive but incompetent, the only persons who can litigate on their behalf are their attorney-in-fact (if the victim had executed power of attorney documents when still competent) or their conservator. If the victim does not have a power of attorney or conservator, you can try to establish a conservatorship of the estate over them, which, if granted, would give you the authority to litigate on their behalf.
Keystone’s probate attorneys can both help to establish a conservatorship and litigate on behalf of financial abuse victims.