In recent years, legal battles surrounding the estates of celebrities and wealthy executives have appeared in the news. Feuding between family members, business partners, and those laying claim to certain intellectual property rights are only some of the reasons why a will or trust might be challenged during probate. Recently, Get Legal had a chance to speak with one of the nation’s foremost estate litigation attorneys, Lenard Leeds of Leeds, Morelli & Brown, PC. Mr. Leeds was involved in the Anna Nicole Smith case and appeared on television to comment on the Michael Jackson case. A number of media outlets regularly ask Mr. Leeds to comment on high profile cases involving contested wills and estate litigation. He has also set aside wills in at least three separate jurisdictions.
Get Legal: From watching the news, it seems like a will can be contested for just about any reason. Is this a problem most people need to worry about?
Mr. Leeds: No, I don’t think so. Yes – theoretically – a will can be contested for any number of reasons; however, some reasons to set aside a will are grounded in the law and legal precedent whereas others are not. For instance, if there is a legitimate question of whether or not the deceased was of sound mind when his or her will was created, you might have grounds to contest a will for testamentary capacity.
If, on the other hand, you don’t like the fact that Uncle Fred left his priceless pocket watch collection to the gardener, you can contest the will all you want. But, if there’s no evidence that Uncle Fred was mentally incompetent or under undue influence of someone else when he made his will, it’s unlikely your will contest will be successful.
Get Legal: What, then, are the main issues that are involved in a will contest or will set aside?
Mr. Leeds: For the most part, it is a function of there being some sort of irregularity or defect in how a will was created or executed. As mentioned earlier, if someone suffers from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or some other condition that compromises their ability to think and reason clearly, they may be incapable of acting rationally. As a result, they may decide to change their will or trust. Since they weren’t “of sound mind” when they changed their will, there are strong legal grounds to contest it.
I should also point out that mental incapacity can make someone vulnerable to the undue influence of others. So, say your Aunt Betty suffers from dementia. A caretaker at the nursing home gains her trust and convinces her you don’t love her or you’ll waste whatever money she leaves you. When Aunt Betty’s lawyer reads her will, you learn you’ve been cut out and the caregiver has been left everything. If Aunt Betty’s will is uncharacteristic of her or what she told you before she passed away, it’s worth contesting the will so evidence can be gathered and an investigation conducted.
Get Legal: But how can you possibly prove that someone’s will is defective or that they weren’t of sound mind when it was created?
Mr. Leeds: It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Well, let me qualify that – proving that a person was not of sound mind when they made their will is not an insurmountable difficulty, though it may involve some heavy lifting to get there. I regularly work with experts and professionals of all kinds – geriatric specialists, neurologists, psychiatrists, pharmacists, handwriting experts, private investigators, and forensic economists, just to name a few. Using certain investigative techniques, we can establish a timeline of events and expose inconsistencies in testimony that is at odds with what medical records show. Here, it’s a matter of catching inconsistencies and outright lies that uncover undue influence and will tampering.
Get Legal: You’ve been involved in a number famous cases and appeared on television as a commentator for the Michael Jackson case. Do you think experience is important in will contests and estate litigation?
Mr. Leeds: Absolutely. While I understand estate law and how wills and trusts are set up and created, my area of focus is in estate litigation. Practically speaking, that means I know what to look for in cases where there may have been a lack of due execution and undue influence. I suppose it’s a bit like a good detective: no matter how convincing someone’s testimony might be, a good detective often knows when something just doesn’t feel right. So, he probes more, he investigates more, he knows where to look and what resources to go to.
As an experienced estate litigator, I’ve seen almost every scam and trick in the book people use to hide undue influence and will tampering. I know what to look for and how to establish my client’s case. In fact, I was involved in one of the largest estates ever probated in Nassau County – a case that involved billions of dollars and was extremely complicated. In the end, however, my client was successful. I also have a Masters in Tax Law from NYU so I’m very detail-oriented and analytical when it comes to my cases.
Get Legal: If you had any words of advice to give to someone who thinks the will or trust of their loved one should be contested, what would you say?
Mr. Leeds: Well, you need to work with an experienced estate litigation attorney who understands the ins an outs of wills, trusts, and estate planning in general. Their attorney should have access to a number of expert and professional resources to investigate and establish a case. They’ll need to gather any information pertinent to their case as well and document any irregularities related to their loved one’s behavior in the later years of his or her life.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, they need to be resilient and prepared to fight. Contesting a will can bring out the worst in families, friends, and business partners. As a result, don’t assume everything can be smoothed over and resolved by simply sitting around the kitchen table and coming to an agreement. If you think an injustice has been committed, hire an experienced estate litigation attorney and contest the will or trust in question.
Get Legal: Thank you for your time, Mr. Leeds.
Mr. Leeds: No, thank you – you’re more than welcome.