Probate, Estates, and Trusts Litigation

“My dad died a few months ago. I just learned dad’s neighbor, Ned, claims to have a copy of his Will which leaves everything to Ned. Ned also is claiming this Will was signed just weeks before dad died. This cannot be right. Last year, dad showed me his Will which left everything to my sister and me. Not to mention, dad was having memory problems in the months before he died. How do I resolve this issue and make sure my sister and I receive our rightful inheritance?”

We can help you evaluate your options. We are skilled and experienced with probate, estates, and trust litigation in Orphans’ Court.

It may not seem aptly named as a jurisdiction to handle feuds over wills and estates, but in its early history, Orphans’ Court was established to protect orphaned children and their right to their family’s estate. Over time, this court came to expand its purpose to resolve issues for people unable to care for themselves as well as issues pertaining to the administration of decedents’ wills and estates.

Members of our Estates and Trusts practice group alongside members of our Litigation practice group have years of experience working together representing clients in Orphans’ Court with matters such as:

  • Will and Trust disputes
  • Legal guardianship
    • Guardianship of minor’s estate or person
    • Guardian Ad Litem for a minor involved in litigation (e.g. an estate administration)
    • Guardianship of person or estate of a special needs adult
    • Limited or Full (Plenary) Guardianship of person or estate of an impaired or incapacitated adult
  • Undue influence
  • Breaches of fiduciary duty by: Power of Attorney, Trustee, Executor/Administrator, Guardian
  • Defending fiduciaries – Power of Attorney, Trustee, Executor/Administrator – from law suits brought against them by beneficiaries and others

Abuse of Power of Attorney questioned by beneficiary; Will contest
In this matter, a beneficiary of an estate and trust questioned the way the decedent’s assets were spent by her Power of Attorney prior to her death, as well as the validity of the decedent’s alleged Last Will. On behalf of the beneficiary, a petition was filed seeking a court accounting from the Power of Attorney to substantiate that no abuse had occurred as to the use of the decedent’s assets prior to her death. Simultaneously, a caveat was filed to prevent the Power of Attorney or Executor from probating the Last Will in anticipation of a Will dispute. After discovery was taken in both cases, a settlement was reached that was a positive resolution for our client.

Husband’s nephew takes advantage of surviving spouse
A husband and wife were married for more than 20 years and had no children. The husband had taken sole responsibility of the family finances, and after he passed away, his nephew provided assistance to the wife. When the wife became ill, her brother became more involved in her finances and noticed substantial money was missing from her portfolio. On behalf of the wife, an investigation was conducted which determined that most of the missing money had been transferred to the nephew without the wife’s knowledge, despite the nephew’s claim that the money was given to him. Litigation was commenced making allegations of fraud, conversion, and undue influence. Ultimately, a favorable monetary settlement was reached and substantial funds were reimbursed to the wife.

Guardianship of a widow
An elderly doctor and his wife who had no children lived together in a condominium. The doctor became ill and was rushed to the hospital, and his wife was left home alone. No one was aware that the wife suffered from Alzheimer’s disease until a week after the doctor’s hospital admission, when she was found acting bizarrely in the hallways of the building. She was then hospitalized, and the doctor died. Although they had Powers of Attorney drawn up, the documents only named the other spouse and did not provide for any successors. No one was left to deal with the doctor’s funeral or the care of his widow. Houston Harbaugh brought a guardianship action after locating a cousin of the wife and was successful having the cousin appointed to look out for the wife’s personal and financial needs.

Emergency guardianship
While Houston Harbaugh was in the process of having a guardian appointed for an incapacitated gentleman who had no known living relatives, after normal business hours he took a sudden turn for the worse and required lifesaving surgery. We diligently located the judge assigned to the matter around 8:00 p.m. that same day to have him sign an emergency order that night permitting the surgery to take place.

Defense of Will before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
The great-niece of an elderly, unmarried, childless, incapacitated man held Power of Attorney for him. Upon his death, she and other great-nieces and nephews were the beneficiaries of millions of dollars under the man’s Will. However, a niece contested the Will alleging that part of the estate was not included in the Will and therefore those assets should be distributed as if no Will existed, and be distributed to her. On behalf of the great-niece, we defended the Will by production of the decedent’s past seven Wills, including his first Will written in his own handwriting showing that the niece was not a person permitted under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to bring a Will contest. With our legal representation, the great-niece prevailed at the trial court level, the Superior Court level and the Supreme Court level. The great-niece also prevailed when the appellant niece requested reconsideration at the Supreme Court level and was denied.

Termination of guardianship
A woman had been declared incapacitated by the court after an automobile accident left her comatose and severely injured. Her son was appointed to serve as guardian of her person and estate. As years went by, the woman began to recover to a much greater extent than had been anticipated by anyone, including her doctors. She came to Houston Harbaugh seeking representation to have the guardianship terminated. With testimony by affidavit and in person by her attending physician, her son, and herself, the guardianship was successfully terminated permitting her to regain control over all of her life decisions.

Minor child’s interests not recognized by Trustee
After a child’s father passed away, he should have received his late father’s interest in a trust by statute; however, the trustee did not recognize the child’s interests. On behalf of the child, litigation was commenced seeking, among other remedies, an accounting of the trust and removal of the Trustee. A new Trustee was appointed by the court, the child’s interests were completely restored and his attorneys’ fees were paid from the share of the defendant Trustee.

Technical error puts surviving spouse and child’s income in jeopardy
A husband and wife set up a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT) to provide income during their joint lives and, at the death of the first spouse, to their child. The principal remaining at the death of the parents and child was to be distributed to charity. The CRUT contained an unusual provision terminating the surviving beneficiaries’ interests if the surviving beneficiaries did not timely pay death taxes on the CRUT at the death of a beneficiary. In this case, the husband was the first to die. The wife was ill advised by her lawyer and the CRUT was not reported on the husband’s state death tax return. Further, the wife was also ill advised that no federal estate tax return was required. The wife learned of the tax reporting and filing errors only after the due date for the tax returns. Because the beneficiaries did not pay the death tax on the CRUT when it was due, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania brought an action to terminate the CRUT and distribute all assets to the charitable beneficiaries. Houston Harbaugh represented the surviving beneficiaries by commencing litigation seeking to reform the trust and remove the unusual provision regarding timely payment of death taxes. As a result, the Court reformed the CRUT, the federal estate tax and state death tax returns were amended and the surviving wife and child’s interest in the income stream was preserved.