Civil & Estate Litigation
A civil litigation case involves a dispute between two parties over a wide range of areas, such as personal injury, property disputes, and labor disputes. Like a criminal suit, both parties must prove their case, although the plaintiff has the higher burden of proof as they must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence.
Estate litigation can involve disputes among family members and heirs over the disbursement of assets after the death of a family member. These matters can be complex and deeply personal. It helps to have an impartial observer who has the experience in this area to sort out any disputes that might arise.
What are Examples of Civil Litigation Cases?
A civil litigation case involves a dispute between two different parties. They could be two individuals, two entities, or a combination of the two. They could involve a dispute between two family members or a person and the company they work for.
In most cases, they involve arguments that do not arise to a criminal matter, although there are some cases that involve both criminal and civil charges. Some examples of civil litigation include:
- Real estate or personal property disagreements: When talking about property litigation, this could involve commercial, industrial, and residential properties. In addition, civil property claims usually involve ownership, boundary lines or adverse possession, or damage inflicted to someone’s property through trespass or misuse. These cases can also involve a dispute about the purchase of property.
- Landlord/Tenant disputes: These cases involve disagreements that can occur between a landlord and their tenants or former tenants. A tenant could sue a landlord who failed to properly maintain a building or to release a security deposit. A landlord might sue for the tenant failing to provide rent.
- Breach of contract: When two parties reach an agreement, they will usually sign a contract. If one of the two sides fails to meet the terms of that contract or outright does something that the contract expressly forbids, the other party can sue over those violations. The resolution of the situation could involve monetary damages, renegotiating the contract, or just a simple nullification of the contract.
- Shareholder/Partnership disputes: When dealing with partners in a limited liability corporation (LLC), it can be complicated. Legal expertise might be necessary to help sort out various arguments over corporate authority, shareholder voting rights, valuation questions, and shareholder agreement disputes. This is an area that also focuses on disputes between vendors and customers, as well as mergers, acquisitions, and disagreements that come up between competitors or those that involve a government agency.
- Trademark or intellectual property dispute: Ideas can be stolen just as easily as money. It is important to protect the rights of those who come up with unique and imaginative ideas that can help propel a company forward. Some of these cases involve trademark infringement, as well as the misappropriation of intellectual property. These cases may also look to verify how much a firm can enforce a non-compete or non-disclosure agreement.
How Does the Civil Litigation Process Work?
The entire process begins when there is a dispute between two parties. If the two parties are unable to resolve their dispute amicably, then it might require litigation to sort the matter out. The litigation aspect of a case begins when one party files a complaint against the other. The one who files the complaint becomes the plaintiff and the other party becomes the defendant. The complaint is served to the defendant soon after filing and explains the grievance between the two parties. It states what the defendant did or did not do and lists the damages inflicted on the plaintiff because of the defendant’s actions.
The defendant then has the opportunity to respond to the complaint. In that document, they can provide their side of the story and explain any actions that the plaintiff took or failed to take that resulted in the dispute. The defendant can also provide a list of the damages they sustained as well.
Once that aspect of the filing is complete, the process moves forward into several basic stages:
- Discovery: This begins immediately after filing the compliant. It involves both sides gathering information about the case or the incident in question. Lawyers for both sides will gather evidence, including documents, photographs, and other important documents. They will also seek information through interrogatories, requests for admissions, and requests for other pertinent case materials. It might become necessary to conduct a deposition at this time as well.
- Expert witnesses: This will depend on the case, but in some instances, the use of an expert witness will be necessary to discuss certain aspects of the situation. For instance, if a person sustains a major injury, it might be necessary to bring in an expert who can testify to the overall impact of said injury.
- Motions: Prior to a trial, both sides may put forth motions for a judge to rule on about a case. It may have to do with the burden of proof, what evidence can be introduced, or logistical matters having to do with the setting of the trial.
- Settlement: Throughout the process, the opportunity for a settlement is always present. One side may realize they might be better off reaching a settlement rather than facing a jury.
- Trial: If the two sides fail to reach a settlement, then a trial will occur. During this portion, representatives for both sides will argue their side’s case and present witnesses and evidence to prove their theory. After both sides have stated their case, a jury or judge will decide the outcome. They will decide who is liable and assign a monetary amount that they will be responsible for.
In Virginia, all civil matters of $25,000 and below are heard at the General District Court, while the Circuit Court handles all other trial-level matters.
Resolving a Case Through Alternative Resolutions
Not all cases find themselves before a judge or jury. A trial can be a long and expensive option, and many involved choose to follow a different course of action that might not be as expensive or time-consuming. Settlements are the most common forms of resolutions in these cases as both sides negotiate a deal that they can each tolerate.
Arbitration is another form of resolution that is available. It is similar to a trial in that a third-party will hear both sides’ arguments and rule on the merits of the case. The process can be faster and less expensive than a traditional court trial. However, there can be some drawbacks. The person hearing the case is called an arbitrator and comes from a pre-selected group. That group can be someone who has some association with one of the entities involved in the litigation. Another drawback is that there is no recourse for a person if they lose at this stage. They cannot appeal the decision.
What are the Unique Aspects of Estate Litigation?
Unlike civil litigation, estate litigation is very document intensive, meaning most lawyers in this area rarely see the inside of a courtroom. These types of disputes can be emotional and difficult, especially if they involve an argument among family members. This type of law contains numerous types of cases including:
- Probate litigation and disputes
- Will contests and disputes
- Trust litigation, contests, and disputes
- Trustee litigation, including seeking advice and consent from the court on the appropriate way to handle difficult situations
- Guardianship disputes
- Conservatorship disputes
- Fiduciary misconduct allegations involving executors and trustees
- Undue influence
- Financial exploitation
What are Some Motivations for Estate Litigation Cases?
All cases begin with learning the facts about what led to the eventual argument. Experienced lawyers will research relevant documents to find out the background of a case and plan a strategy that makes the most sense for the client. In doing their research, lawyers will discover the reasons for the dispute, which can include:
- Challenge to a will: There are numerous reasons to challenge a will and most involve questioning the motivation of the deceased. It can also be argued that the person did not actually make the changes, but instead, their signature was forged by someone else.
- Elective share claims: Regardless of the state of a marriage, a surviving spouse has the right to inherit assets from a deceased spouse. If the deceased does not provide for the surviving spouse or does not provide the total amount that they are entitled to, the surviving spouse can seek those funds through litigation.
- Creditor claims: A creditor who believes that the deceased person owed them money has the right to seek financial relief against the estate upon the death of the individual.
- Breach of fiduciary duty: The executor of a will has a fiduciary obligation to the estate to make decisions that are in the estate’s best interests. If that person is failing to meet those obligations, other members of the estate can attempt to remove that person from the position.
The process can be time consuming and emotional, which is why it makes sense to hire an experienced lawyer who make a decision based on the facts that are before them.
What Cases are Heard Before a Probate Court?
Whenever a person challenges the validity of any aspect of a will, the case could wind up in probate court. The court will determine if the will is valid or not. If it is, the court will oversee the appointment of the prescribed executor and ensure that all the assets are distributed in accordance with the wishes of the deceased.
Who can Challenge a Will?
There are two groups of people who are eligible to challenge the validity of a will; those who are named in the will and family members of the deceased who have a legal right to inherit from the deceased who have not been formally disinherited. If a person is not a family member nor are they named as a beneficiary in the will, they have no standing to challenge it.
For those who have standing to contest a will, they can argue that the final version does not truly reflect the deceased person’s intentions. They can also argue that there were several factors that led to that person making the changes. Some of those factors include:
- Limited mental capacity: Their mental state had deteriorated to such a point that they did not know what they were doing when they made out the will. They could have lacked testamentary capacity.
- Under bad influence: The person was coerced by someone else to makes changes that were not one’s best interests.
- Will does not follow procedure: The deceased person might not have signed the will in front of witnesses or there could be a question as to whether the person signed it at all.
- The will was revoked: If the will was revoked, that is enough to rule it invalid. Some reasons for revoking a will could be the establishment of a new will, a new marriage, or a legal action.
- Fraud: Those contesting the will must have concrete evidence that the deceased person was deliberately misled by a third-party.
What if No Will was Involved?
If a person dies before having created a will, then intestacy laws will take effect. These laws lay out the procedure in how and what percentage family members will receive from their deceased relative. The assets will go to family members in a specific order. The first recipient on the list will be the person’s spouse, followed by any, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. In the case of determining eligibility for inheritance, family members who are half-blooded relatives are full relatives, therefore they are organized based on their relationship to the deceased and not on their genetic connection.