In Arizona, the term probate litigation encompasses a wide range of legal actions that can occur when someone passes away. Many of these causes of action are intertwined and can be used either separately or together to capture the myriad of claims that may be available. Typical claims include:
Lack of Capacity
In order to execute a will or trust, the person signing it must have the required level of capacity for the document to be declared valid. The threshold for a valid will or trust is low; however, the document is subject to being found invalid by the court if it does not meet the minimum standard. Beneficiaries, heirs, or devisees may bring a lack of capacity claim. If successful, the document in question is set aside, and the court will treat the document as if it does not exist.
In Arizona, a decedent's will or trust may be set aside when the court determines the document is the product of undue influence. Undue influence occurs when someone exerts such extreme influence over the decedent that the document reflects the desires of the influencer and not those of the decedent. Arizona courts look at eight factors when determining if undue influence occurred. Generally, the person bringing the claim has the burden to prove their case. However, in some circumstances the burden may shift to the alleged influencer to prove they did not unduly influence the decedent.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
Trustees and personal representatives owe fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries, devisees, or heirs. These fiduciary duties are breached when the fiduciary fails to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries. Examples of breach of fiduciary duty include failing to keep the beneficiaries informed about the administration, self-dealing, or treating some beneficiaries better than others.
Arizona's Financial Exploitation statute was enacted to protect our most vulnerable from financial abuse. Under this law, financial exploitation occurs when someone in a position of trust and confidence to a vulnerable adult uses their assets for other than the vulnerable adult's benefit. The consequences for committing financial exploitation are dire: the exploiter may face treble damages (three times the actual damage), attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in prosecuting the action, and forfeiture of any benefits to which the exploiter would otherwise be entitled by virtue of the vulnerable adult's death.
If you believe you may have a probate litigation claim, it is important to talk to a qualified attorney who can help you determine which cause of action may be applicable in your case.
Nora Jones and her team are experienced in probate and trust matters and assist families every day to explore, prosecute, and defend claims in this area of law. Reach out to us to see how we may be able to help you.