How Can You Prove Probate Fraud?

Importance of Planning

Losing a loved one can be emotionally overwhelming — not only might you be experiencing unbearable grief, but you may also be required to go through the probate process in court. This process can become even more stressful if you believe fraud was involved in the proceedings. Unfortunately, there can be many types of deceptive conduct that unscrupulous individuals might engage in to obtain more than their fair share of the decedent’s estate. It is necessary to ensure these wrongdoers are held accountable for their actions, and the last wishes of your loved one are upheld.

What is Probate Fraud?

Probate is the process by which a decedent’s estate is administered and their property is distributed after their passing. Fraud can take many different shapes and forms during this process. When it comes to identifying probate fraud, many people think of it in terms of undue influence in the creation of a will. However, it can also include various other wrongful behaviors such as retitling a decedent’s bank account or influencing the decedent to cash in annuities before their passing.

Other common examples of fraud that occur before or during probate and give rise to litigation can include the following:

  • Interference with the expectancy of an inheritance
  • Fraud in the inducement
  • Spousal elective share fraud
  • Executor or trustee fraud
  • Undue influence in the execution of a will
  • Formal accountings fraud
  • Unauthorized transactions
  • Beneficiary designation changes

You have a limited amount of time under Florida law to file a probate dispute. The deadlines can depend on the challenge you are raising and the type of notice you were served. You only have 90 days after being provided with Notice of Administration to contest a will — there is a 20-day statute of limitations in place to object to a will from the date you were served with formal notice. Critically, these deadlines might be extended in cases involving unlawful activity or fraud.

Legal Grounds for Florida Probate Fraud Matters

If you are an interested party in the decedent’s estate and have reason to believe probate fraud occurred, you may be entitled to pursue legal action. Importantly, fraud can happen during the probate process itself, or while the testator was alive. Common causes of action in probate fraud cases can include undue influence, lack of capacity, breach of fiduciary duty, and other forms of deception. A cause of action called intentional interference with the expectancy of an inheritance is also available under Florida law.

To demonstrate intentional interference with the expectancy of an inheritance, four elements are required to be shown. A beneficiary must establish: (1) they expected to receive an inheritance from the estate; (2) a third party intentionally interfered with their expectancy of inheritance through tortious conduct; (3) the party’s wrongful interference resulted in the beneficiary’s loss of inheritance; and (4) the beneficiary suffered damages due to the tortious interference. Notably, this cause of action cannot be raised until a beneficiary exhausts all other legal remedies at probate. In addition, courts will not hear a claim for tortious interference with expectancy prior to the testator’s passing.

A beneficiary may also be able to bring a claim for fraudulent misrepresentation in connection with the probate of the decedent’s estate. Not to be confused with negligent representation — which occurs when a party makes a statement not knowing it isn’t true — fraudulent misrepresentation takes place when a statement is made with knowledge that is false.

Evidence Needed to Prove Probate Fraud in Court

Proving probate fraud is complex. In some cases, there may have been one specific instance of fraud, such as those involving a forged signature on a will, trust, beneficiary designation, or another estate planning document. But in other cases, there may have been a series of fraudulent transactions. In order to prove fraud took place, it’s crucial to gather adequate evidence to present it to the court.

Depending on the cause of action, fraud may be established through depositions, expert witness interviews, and subpoenaed documents. An experienced probate attorney can also utilize the applicable evidentiary rules to expose a wrongdoer’s lies and deception. If the fraud occurred while the testator was living, a court will evaluate the circumstances surrounding the suspected fraud. For example, if undue influence is asserted, the court will look at factors such as the vulnerability of the testator — and the control or pressure exerted over them.

In most Florida probate fraud cases, courts apply the “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard. This means that there is a high probability of truth regarding the facts offered as proof. It is a much higher standard than a preponderance of the evidence, which is satisfied when the factfinder is convinced that it is more likely than not that something is true.

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