Estate and Trust Disputes and Litigation
An individual prepares an estate plan by executing a will, trust, or both in many cases. It is of utmost importance to determine the intent of a decedent and carry out the desired wishes as set forth in his or her estate plan. Circumstances may arise which lead to a contest of the validity of an individual’s estate plan.
- Mental capacity of the maker of the will or trust
- Access, control and influence upon the maker
- Fraud or duress upon the maker
- Execution of the documents in question
- Misconduct or self-dealing by an executor or trustee
- Lost original will or trust
- Substantial changes from prior estate plan
- Codicil or amendment shortly before death
- Changes in ownership of assets
Dick Hatfield has focused his statewide practice in the areas of estate and trust litigation since 1988. He has successfully prosecuted and defended will and trust contests under a myriad of circumstances. He has achieved positive results for his clients in many disputes by settlement negotiations and mediation, thus avoiding lengthy litigation. He has been licensed to practice law since 1967. Combined, his team has over 50 years of employment with him; Kristin Anderson over 26 years, Cara Smith over 20 years and Cindy May, over 3 years. They conduct research, draft pleadings, prepare for and attend depositions, prepare for and attend trials. Dick has experience in all aspects of estate and trust litigation from defending a trustee’s actions to filing an action on behalf of a beneficiary or contesting the will or trust document itself. Some of this practice involves cancelling documents that change distribution, for example, a change in bank account ownership or beneficiary designation. Dick’s outstanding reputation in these areas is widely known.
Estate Administration – Probate
After an individual’s death, depending on the value of his or her assets and how those assets are held, estate administration may be required, whether or not a will exists. Probate is a legal process to open estate administration in a court proceeding, appoint the personal representative nominated in a decedent’s will and ultimately distribute remaining assets to the beneficiaries in accordance with the will. If a person dies without a will, an administrator is appointed and his assets are distributed pursuant to Arkansas laws of intestacy. A personal representative (executor or administrator) must be appointed to manage an estate. Upon appointment, the personal representative has a duty to gather and manage estate assets, publish required notices, identify and pay approved claims and taxes, defend contested matters, distribute remaining assets to heirs or beneficiaries and close the estate.
Dick Hatfield has represented hundreds of personal representatives, guiding them through the probate process. He has appeared regularly in probate courts across Arkansas in both contested and uncontested matters. His team is knowledgeable and skilled in probate procedures and requirements. They have decades of experience in assisting personal representatives in their duty to properly and efficiently manage estate administration.
The probate process may be avoided if an individual has a properly prepared and funded trust as his/her estate plan. Although court proceedings may be avoided, a trustee has many of the same responsibilities as a personal representative of an estate. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to administer the trust by proper notice to beneficiaries, gathering and managing assets, determining and paying debt and taxes, complying with the trust terms and distributing assets to the trust beneficiaries as intended by the trust grantor. A named trustee may have little experience or knowledge of trust law and his/her fiduciary duties under the trust.
Dick Hatfield has been guiding trustees through the trust administration process for over 46 years. He has assisted clients in fulfilling all legal aspects of their fiduciary duties as trustee and when necessary, interpreting the terms of a trust.
A guardianship is a legal probate proceeding in which a guardian is appointed to care for a ward, who is not capable of caring for himself. A guardian may be appointed as (1) guardian of the person, to make medical and everyday living decisions for the ward, (2) guardian of the estate, to make financial decisions for the ward, or (3) both guardian of the person and estate of the ward. It is possible for an individual to be guardian of the person and another individual guardian of the estate. A petition must be filed with the Circuit Court and medical evidence of incapacity must be presented. A guardianship may be contested and a guardian may be removed under certain circumstances. These actions may involve disputes as to property ownership and actions of others as to the ward’s property.
Dick Hatfield has advised and guided numerous individuals considering the difficult decision of guardianship of a loved one. Although the majority of these guardianships have been for the elderly, who have become incapacitated due to age or illness, he has also handled cases of grandparents’ guardianship of grandchildren and other circumstances. He has provided counsel to those questioning whether actions of a guardian were in the best interest of the ward.
A case is first tried in trial court and decided either by judge or jury. All evidence and arguments are presented at the trial court level. Making and preserving the record at trial is crucial to an appeal, as no new evidence nor argument may be made on appeal. Once a final order is entered in the trial court, an appeal can follow. Further arguments are made to either the Arkansas Court of Appeals or the Arkansas Supreme Court. The appellant, the losing party at the trial court level, files notice of appeal and through briefs, presents to the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court its argument to support reversible error to overturn the decision of the trial court. The appellee, the winner at the trial court level, through its brief presents its argument to affirm the trial court’s decision. After all the briefs are filed, they are submitted to the appeals court and an opinion is issued reversing, remanding or affirming the trial court’s decision.
It is of utmost importance to be represented at the appellate level by an attorney who has expertise in appellate law, which is not an area of practice for many attorneys. Dick Hatfield has represented many clients on appeal, mostly appellees. Some of those opinions are accessible on this website. Dick Hatfield has the knowledge, experience and expertise in the areas of estate and trust litigation and appellate law to guide his clients through the appellate process.