Property Disputes

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.

 

  • Is the decedent’s trust missing assets or property that were supposed to be funded into the trust?
  • Did a third-party scammer swindle the decedent out of tens of thousands of dollars before they died?
  • Did the decedent’s power of attorney misappropriate assets during the decedent’s life?
  • Did you jointly inherit real estate with your family members, and now an agreement cannot be reached about how to divide the property?
  • Did the decedent create a trust but forget to transfer titles to property into the trust’s name?
  • Is there a real estate transaction that the decedent failed to complete prior to death?

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.

Definition

What is a Property Dispute?

A property dispute is a disagreement over ownership or possession of assets. While property disputes often involve real estate, they can concern any type of property, whether it be a life insurance policy or bank account, or personal property, such as cars or artwork. 

 

By contrast, if the property in question had still been owned by the decedent at the time of death, but the executor or trustee is not distributing it to the beneficiaries in a timely fashion, then you may not have a property dispute issue, but rather a fiduciary misconduct problem. Similarly, if the property had still been owned by the decedent at death, but you believe the decedent’s will or trust is invalid, then you may need to dispute the will or trust. 

 

Property disputes can arise in a variety of contexts in probate. They can involve everyone from the trustee or executor, to a beneficiary or heir, to a guardian or conservator, and even a third party.

 

Regardless of the nature of your property dispute, Keystone’s team of property dispute attorneys can help.

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What We Do

Why Do You Need a Property Dispute Lawyer?

You may require the assistance of a law firm if you are seeking to file a property dispute claim or defend a property dispute claim that has been brought against you.

 

Whichever side of the situation you are on, the property dispute attorneys at Keystone can help educate you on your rights and legal options.

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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. ADRecovery 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 decedent had been unduly influenced by a relative into gifting away one of their most valuable real properties before they died. The executor is seeking to recover this property through the use of an 850 Petition so it can be distributed as a part of the estate to the beneficiaries the decedent had originally intended.
  • Before a conservatee was placed under a conservatorship, they had been scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars by a third party. The conservator of the estate discovered this financial loss when accounting and is seeking to recover the stolen funds from the third party by litigating on behalf of the conservatee.
  • The decedent had given away valuable family heirlooms to a friend at a time when they lacked competence due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease; however, these heirlooms were supposed to be distributed as a part of the decedent’s trust to family members. The trustee and trust beneficiaries are seeking the recovery of heirlooms from the friend.

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:

  • While a vacation home was acquired during marriage, only the deceased spouse’s name was on title. As a result, they left the entirety of that asset to their children from a prior marriage through their trust. The surviving spouse is seeking to recover their rightful 50% of the community asset.
  • A married couple had purchased several pieces of valuable artwork, all of which the deceased spouse is disposing to charity through their will. The surviving spouse is seeking to recover their 50% interest in the artwork.
  • The deceased spouse had entered into marriage owning a separate real property; however, during marriage, community funds were used to make repairs and mortgage payments on the property that were never repaid by the deceased spouse. Now, the deceased spouse is disposing of the entire property to their side of the family through their trust, even though that property is no longer their separate asset. Their surviving spouse is seeking to recover their rightful 50% interest in the property,

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:

  • A decedent had entered into an agreement with a third party before dying to sell several real properties. The executor of their estate is seeking to complete the transfer of the properties to the third party on the decedent’s behalf using an 850 Petition.
  • A decedent had entered into a contract to purchase a real property on behalf of their trust but died before the transfer of property could be completed. The successor trustee is seeking to complete the transfer of property on behalf of the decedent’s trust.

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:

  • A decedent created a trust before they died and assigned all of their property to the trust, but they neglected to formally retitle assets into the name of the trust prior to their death. The trustee is seeking to confirm the trust’s ownership of the assets with a Heggstad Petition to avoid a formal probate.
  • A decedent purchased several real properties prior to their death, which they instructed via their trust instrument to be disposed of to trust beneficiaries. However, they died suddenly, resulting in the titles to property not being transferred into the trust’s name. The successor trustee is seeking to avoid the properties being distributed as a part of the decedent’s estate by having titles retroactively transferred into the trust’s name.

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:

  • A decedent had promised to transfer a charity several real properties held by their trust upon their death; however, the decedent’s trust instructs for these properties to be disposed of to the decedent’s family members. The charity is seeking to enforce the terms of its agreement with the decedent and have titles to property transferred into its name.
  • A decedent had been transferred title to real property while alive under the condition that the property would be transferred back to its previous owner upon the decedent’s death. The decedent, however, did not include a provision in their will or trust relating to property. The previous owner of the property is seeking to enforce the terms of their agreement with the decedent and have ownership of the property returned to them.

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:

  • Siblings jointly inherited their parents’ home; however, while some siblings want to sell the property and divide the proceeds, other siblings are not willing to part with the home on account of its sentimental value. A partition action can be used by the siblings seeking to terminate their interests in the property to reach a fair agreement with the siblings who are seeking to keep the home.
  • A business is jointly owned by several parties, some of whom wish to terminate their interests in the business. Because the other owners of the business are unwilling to sell, and the parties have been unable to reach a fair buyout agreement on their own, the parties seeking to sell can bring a partition lawsuit to resolve the dispute.
  • Two parties have an equal interest in an apartment complex. One party wants to terminate their interest in the complex, but the other party wishes to maintain theirs and is seeking help from the court to fairly divide the property in half so they can continue owning their half of the property and collecting rent from tenants without having to buy out the other owner’s interest in the 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.

Who We Help

Who Our Property Disputes Lawyers Represent

Keystone can represent anyone bringing or defending a property dispute that is either filed with the probate court or involves the property of a decedent, conservatee, minor or beneficiary.

Property disputes most commonly take these forms:

  • Beneficiary vs. Beneficiary 
  • Executor vs. Beneficiary
  • Trustee vs. Beneficiary
  • Executor vs. Trustee
  • Beneficiary vs. Third Party
  • Executor vs. Third Party
  • Trustee vs. Third Party
  • Power of Attorney vs. Third Party
  • Guardian vs. Third Party

Conservator vs. Third Party

 

If you are unsure whether Keystone can represent you in a property dispute, our team of attorneys would be happy to hear the facts of your case to provide clarification.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Our Work

Case Studies of Our Property Disputes Services

The Keystone team is dedicated to providing each of its clients the support and guidance they need to navigate the property dispute process. We offer a variety of services that can be individualized to your unique case, as evidenced by the case studies below. 

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 Property Disputes Firm

At Keystone, our team specializes in all matters probate. Regardless of whether you are bringing a property dispute or defending against one, our attorneys have the knowledge and qualifications to assist you and secure for you a desirable resolution. 

 

We’re proud to help clients across California with their property dispute cases. We look forward to working with you.

Our Property Dispute Lawyers

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:

  • Invitations to teach law students about estates and trusts
  • Specialist Certifications in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law by the State Bar of California, Board of Legal Specialization.
  • Invitations to speak to attorneys, CPAs and other professionals on probate law topics
  • Recognition in publications like Super Lawyers, Daily Journal and Best Lawyers® for outstanding performance
Locations We Serve

We specialize in all varieties of property dispute matters, commonly serving:

  • Los Angeles County
  • Orange County
Frequently Asked Questions

Property Disputes FAQs

In this section, you can find answers to the most commonly asked questions from clients about property disputes. If you have any further questions, please reach out to our attorneys for assistance.

Is it possible to recover stolen property or funds if you don’t know who is responsible for the financial abuse?

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.

Can a decedent’s assets be recovered if they have already been distributed to beneficiaries or heirs by the executor/administrator or trustee?

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.

What if a decedent’s will and trust conflict?

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.

Does the losing side pay the other side’s attorney’s fees and costs in property disputes?

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.

 

Can a family member or friend bring a property dispute on behalf of a financial abuse victim who is still alive?

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.

Learn More

Discuss Your Case with a Property Disputes Attorney

The property dispute claims process can be complicated to navigate on your own. It is invaluable to have an experienced property dispute lawyer on your side, no matter what side of the dispute you are on. Call us today to arrange your free consultation.