Burden of Proof in Arizona Estate Litigation

Estate litigation is a legal dispute that happens after a person dies. Conflicts usually arise over how the deceased person’s property and money (called their estate) are divided. Litigation can happen if someone thinks the decedent’s will is invalid, if there are questions about how the person managing the estate is handling matters, or if someone feels they should have received more from the estate. To prevail in an estate litigation case, the person filing must provide convincing evidence to show their side is correct. This is called meeting the burden of proof.

If you’re seeking to contest estate management or defend your duties as a personal representative or trustee, an experienced Arizona estate litigation attorney can help. At Pennington Law, PLLC, we have years of experience in disputed estates, contested wills, and other complicated estate and probate issues. Contact us now for a free consultation.

What is the Burden of Proof and Why Does it Matter in Estate Litigation?

If someone has the burden of proof in a lawsuit, it is their responsibility to present evidence to convince the court that their perspective is correct. In estate litigation, the burden of proof matters because it determines which party must establish the legitimacy of a will or contest its validity.

The complaining party has the burden of proof for proving that their side of the story is the right one. They do this by supplying evidence, like documents or witnesses, to support their claims. They might not win the case if they can’t provide enough convincing evidence.

Who Has the Burden of Proof in a Will Dispute?

Under Arizona’s estate litigation statutes, the person challenging the will’s validity bears the burden of proof. They must provide compelling evidence to show that factors such as coercion, fraud, undue influence, or lack of mental capacity exist.

Conversely, if someone is defending the will’s validity, they must also present evidence, particularly if the challenger’s claims seem credible.

What is Clear and Convincing Evidence?

Clear and convincing evidence is a legal standard of proof. In civil cases, you must prove the facts by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning the evidence would lead a person to conclude that it’s more likely than not that your version of events is accurate. However, the case doesn’t rise to the level of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the standard used in criminal cases.

In estate litigation, reaching the burden of clear and convincing evidence requires strong, credible, and reliable proof. It’s not enough to simply tell your side of the story. You must back it up with solid evidence. Here are some examples of what might constitute clear and convincing evidence in a will dispute:

  • Witness testimony: Witness accounts can be powerful evidence, especially if testimony comes from disinterested parties (those without a stake in the case). For example, a housekeeper with no financial interest in the estate might testify about a significant change in the testator’s behavior or capacity, suggesting undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity.
  • Medical records: Comprehensive medical records can provide clear and convincing evidence of a person’s mental state.
  • Audio or video recordings: A video or audio recording that shows someone pressuring the testator or the testator demonstrating cognitive difficulties could provide compelling evidence of undue influence or lack of capacity.
  • Written documents: Correspondence, notes, or other written documents can also be strong evidence. For instance, a letter from the testator expressing fear or concern about a person who later becomes a primary beneficiary in the will could support a claim of undue influence.

What are the Consequences of Failing to Meet the Burden of Proof in an Arizona Estate Litigation Case?

Failing to meet the burden of proof in an Arizona estate litigation case can have serious consequences, such as:

Loss of Inheritance

The most direct consequence of failing to meet the burden of proof is the potential loss of inheritance. The court will uphold the original will if you contest it but cannot provide clear and convincing evidence to support your claim. This outcome might exclude you from receiving any inheritance or reduce your portion considerably, especially if the existing will does not favor you.

Legal costs

If you fail to meet the burden of proof, you might have to pay legal expenses. Arizona law gives the court discretion to order the losing party to pay the prevailing party’s attorney fees and costs in estate litigation.

Distribution According to Intestacy Laws

If your case is about proving a will is valid, failing to meet the burden of proof could invalidate the will. If there isn’t another valid will to fall back on, the decedent’s estate will be distributed according to Arizona’s intestacy laws. These laws follow a rigid distribution scheme that doesn’t consider the decedent’s wishes, which might result in certain family members inheriting more or less than the decedent intended, or nothing at all.

Strained Relationships

Failing to meet the burden of proof can also lead to strained familial relationships. Estate litigation often involves close family members or relatives. If family members cannot support their allegations with convincing evidence, it can create or deepen rifts within the family.

Emotional Toll

Estate litigation can be a lengthy, stressful process. If the burden of proof is unmet, it can feel like all the time, energy, and emotional investment was for nothing, leading to frustration and disappointment.

How Can an Estate Planning Attorney Help Me?

Having an attorney at your side during estate litigation could help you obtain a fair and just result. An Arizona estate litigation attorney with Pennington Law, PLLC, can develop a thoughtful, effective strategy for pursuing your desired outcome. We understand Arizona laws regarding the burden of proof and how to build a strong case that stands up to the toughest challenges. Contact us today to get the help you need in your estate litigation case.