A Guide to the Process of Estate Litigation

Disputes can arise over the administration of a probate estate. When a significant amount of money is involved or a family conflict among the surviving family members, disputes are more likely to occur. Estate litigation can arise between a trustee and a beneficiary, between multiple beneficiaries of a will, or between heirs of the deceased at law. 

Some estate litigation involves third parties. When a conflict becomes unresolvable, estate litigation before the court will happen. However, the conflict will not go to trial immediately. There are multiple steps involved in estate litigation before a judge will hear your case. We will discuss the process of estate litigation below.


Stage 1: Research and Investigation

The first step in the estate litigation process is determining the nature of the conflict and who was involved. As mentioned above, there are many different types of estate and probate litigation. When you first meet with one of these skilled estate litigation lawyers at the Law Office of Daniel Hunt, we will ask you for as much information as possible. We wanted to gain an in-depth understanding of the disputed will or trust. 

We will ask you for any relevant communication from the opposing parties or their attorneys, such as emails or letters. We will also need the names and contact information of any witnesses who could help you in your case. After your initial consultation, we will sit down and have a longer meeting to understand the situation better and ask questions to test your case. During this stage, we will also do more legal research to develop the best strategy.


Stage 2: The Pleading Stage

Lawsuits officially start when one person files a pleading. In estate litigation, the initial pleading is typically called the petition. The person who files the first pleading with the court is called the petitioner. The petition will outline the facts of the case and the law that entitles the petitioner to money damages or another remedy. The petitioner may ask the probate court to remove a trustee, appoint a conservator, or invalidate a last will and testament. If you are being sued in the lawsuit, you will receive a copy of the petition. You will have the opportunity to respond to the petition and deny the allegations in it and object to the petitioner’s requests.


Stage 3: Discovery

The discovery process is crucial in estate litigation. Each side will try to obtain the evidence they can admit to court to prove their side. Each lawyer will ask the other side to fill out written discovery questions, called interrogatories. The lawyers will also depose witnesses under oath. Lawyers can also require the opposing party to give them relevant documents by requesting document production. The lawyers can object to certain types of discovery. The discovery process can go on for a long time, especially in complex cases.


Stage 4: Mediation

In many California probate courts, the judge will order the parties to go to mediation to encourage them to settle the case out of court. During mediation, a neutral third party will try to assist the parties to resolve the case. The mediator does not rule on the case like a judge, but evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s case, relays demands and settlement offers, and may propose solutions that the parties did not think of. If the mediation is successful, the parties may settle the case out of court by signing a settlement agreement. Even if the parties do not settle, they may still negotiate up until the trial begins. 


Stage 5: Expert Witness Depositions

Most estate litigation cases require expert testimony from witnesses. Suppose someone is challenging the will, claiming that another person used undue influence over the decedent, pressuring him or her to change the will. The person challenging the will may call a neuropsychiatrist or neuropsychologist to provide expert testimony about the decedent’s mental capacity. Both sides typically present expert testimony.


Stage 6: Trial Preparation

If the parties still have not settled, the lawyers will begin trial preparation. During trial preparation, each side’s lawyers will decide which evidence they will submit to the court. They will also prepare to cross-examine witnesses in court and write their opening and closing statements. Courts are booked far in advance, especially due to the coronavirus pandemic. The trial date may be a year or more away. Trial preparation can be all-consuming for the attorneys and their clients.


Stage 7: Trial

Most estate litigation cases take place before a judge and not a jury. However, if someone is challenging a conservatorship, the case could take place before a jury. In simple cases, trials can take a day or several weeks in complicated cases. Both lawyers will present evidence, witness testimony and provide an opening and closing statement during the trial. The parties may decide to settle immediately before or even during the trial. Going through a trial can be a complex process, but the skilled lawyers at the Law Office of Daniel Hunt can help you navigate estate litigation and feel prepared for what will happen.


Stage 8: Appeal

If you lose at the trial court level, you can appeal your case to the California Court of Appeal. Most people do not appeal estate litigation cases, and winning on appeal is unlikely. However, some cases should be appealed, and we can help you determine the best strategy in your case. 


Contact a Skilled Estate Litigation Lawyer

The estate litigation process is confusing, especially if you have never been involved in a probate conflict before. At the Law Offices of Daniel Hunt, our experienced probate lawyers can help you navigate the complex area of estate litigation. We will listen carefully to your situation and answer all of your questions, so you understand what the process will look like. We will also protect your legal rights and advocate diligently on your behalf. Contact our Sacramento-based estate planning law firm today to schedule your initial consultation.

Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt

The Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt is a California law firm specializing in Estate Planning; Trust Administration & Litigation; Probate; and Conservatorships. We've helped over 10,000 clients find peace of mind. We serve clients throughout the greater Sacramento region and the state of California.