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Probate Litigation Process in Minnesota

What to Expect from Probate Litigation

Litigation between strangers can be stressful. Litigation between family members can be traumatic. Families can become fractured, or even more fractured than before, because of intra-familial litigation. Unlike mediation or arbitration where the goal should be to resolve the issues in all parties' interests, litigation results in clear winners and losers.

The process begins by hiring an attorney who will help you prepare and file a petition with the Probate Court. You are not required to hire a lawyer, but because of the complexity of probate law, court rules, and litigation in general, you should seriously consider hiring a lawyer to assist you with your case.

Probate litigation proceeds much like any other type of civil litigation. The attorneys file pleadings, the parties engage in discovery, and the parties must usually either negotiate or see the case through trial. Probate litigation does not necessarily mean going all the way through the end of trial; cases can be negotiated and settled without actually having to set foot in court.

In discovery, the attorneys will identify witnesses, if any, exchange documents, and provide all of the evidence they plan to use during trial. Cases often settle during the discovery phase because the lawyers start to see how strong or weak in their cases are. The choice of whether to settle or proceed to trial is ultimately up to the plaintiff and the defendant. The parties, not their lawyers, have the final say. However, the attorneys should recommend the best course of action. If settlement is in a party's best interest, then his or her attorney should be upfront with his client and recommend settling.

In litigation, the plaintiff is often trying to win everything. Sometimes the plaintiff would rather take nothing than take part of something. The risk of losing everything merits the potential to gain everything.

To win everything in probate litigation, the plaintiff must prove that he or she is entitled to the entire estate or that nobody else is entitled to any property. To prove that he or she is entitled to the entire estate, the plaintiff must show that the final, express intent of the decedent was to bequeath all property to the plaintiff. Only by producing a will, or some other operative legal document, that names the plaintiff as the sole beneficiary can the plaintiff prove that he or she is entitled to the entire estate. A decedent may have intended a single person to receive the entire estate, but the intent needs to be documented and verifiable. The plaintiff cannot simply assert that the decedent wanted him or her to have the estate or any part thereof.

Attempting to prove that no other supposed beneficiary is entitled to any property from the estate will likely be just as challenging unless the plaintiff can supply evidence. In some situations, plaintiffs have proven heirs illegitimate. The legislature has enacted slayer statutes that prevent killers from inheriting money or property from the persons that they kill or play a role in killing. For example, if a husband kills his wife, then their children or the State can challenge and prevent the husband from inheriting or receiving as beneficiary any money or property from the wife's estate, such as life insurance proceeds.

If you think you are a potential beneficiary, or you believe that you have a case to contest a will, you should consult with an attorney who practices in probate litigation. Contact Minnesota attorney Patrick K. Oden or call 651.210.9409 for a free consultation.

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