Divvying up a loved one’s earthly possessions after they’re gone is pretty miserable, even under the best circumstances. But if someone messed with their estate plan before they died, estate administration – that’s lawyer-speak for distributing someone’s things according to their will or other planning documents – can become a complete nightmare.

It’s something that we’re seeing more of these days at Generation Law, unfortunately, with the rise in deaths during the global pandemic. Common situations include an adult child, new spouse, or even a neighbor making big changes to the estate plan shortly before death to make sure that they get a big chunk of it.

There are plenty of high-profile celebrity cases like this, including the ongoing fight over Sumner Redstone’s estate (whose trust was amended an eye-popping 40 times). But you don’t need to preside over a media empire to end up with family members haggling over your valuables.

In some cases, court is the only solution to fix it. Here’s what to watch for to avoid having it happen to your loved one, and how to challenge an estate plan if you have no other choice.

Warning signs to watch for

Pro tip: It’s a lot easier to deal with sneaky changes to an estate plan before your family member dies than after. Older adults with no partner or close relatives are particularly susceptible to having someone make unauthorized changes to their estate plans. If you’re concerned about a relative signing over their life savings, watch for signs like visits to multiple attorneys or big sudden changes to their plans.

Going to court

Once they’ve passed, what then? The best way to change an estate plan is to overturn it completely and revert to the previous plan. In Illinois, you have the right to contest a will or trust if you can prove you have a financial interest – like if you would have received more from a previous version of the will or a trust. Here are a few rules to keep in mind:

  • You typically need to file within six months of a will going to probate after the person’s death.
  • You have a bit more time to challenge a trust, but the sooner you file an action, the better.
  • The general grounds for contesting a will or trust include if someone else had undue influence over the deceased person who created the document, if the person wasn’t mentally competent at the time they created or changed it, or if the person was fraudulently coerced into signing.
  • Typically, the strongest case you can make is to argue that your loved one wasn’t mentally competent when they signed the plan. Get medical records together and anything else that can show the circumstances around the change and help prove that they didn’t mean to change it.
  • Probate and trust litigation – duking it out in court over the estate plan – is a long hard slog, even if you do end up winning. The fight can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $150,000, and the process can take two to three years. In addition, if you lose the fight you will be responsible to pay your own legal fees. Talk to an attorney about whether it’s worth it in your situation.

Generation Law is one of the few estate planning firms that also offers litigation, so we can help bring closure after a family member dies – whether or not you end up in court. We’re here to review the plan of a parent, partner, or other loved one and help you decide what makes sense. Give us a call to talk about your situation.