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What is probate litigation and how can I avoid it?

In New York, probate litigation is generally defined when legal disputes arise over the assets, property and control over the affairs of both the living and the deceased. These can be fights between family members over the contents of a will or a dispute between siblings regarding the care of their mentally incapacitated parents.

Here in New York, probate court is formally known as Surrogate's Court. When a New York resident dies after having prepared a will then under state law, the will must first pass through the Surrogate's Court. Of course, that process converts the will into a public document, and it is usually open to public scrutiny. A new show that premiered earlier this month on the Reelz Channel highlighted how troubling that scrutiny can be for individuals who wish to keep their personal business private.

The first episode of the series called "Celebrity Legacies" focused on the troubled the state of James Gandolfini. The actor famous from his role in "The Sopranos" died rather unexpectedly in 2013, leaving behind a wife, a considerable estate and two young children from two separate marriages.

At the time of his death, Gandolfini was reportedly worth somewhere between $70 and $80 million. The television episode talks about how Gandolfini created a will as a temporary plan after the birth of his daughter. Experts on the show say that it would have been better if Gandolfini had instead used a revocable living trust. The show's experts speculated that the trust would have contemplated the division of the actor's assets and property amongst his heirs in addition to keeping that information private.

New York residents should know that although you are not required to have legal representation during probate litigation, it is still a good idea. Court battles over guardianships, conservatorships, powers of attorney or even challenging a will can be very complicated and time-consuming. Alternatively, those seeking to avoid having their personal affairs made public should take the time now to initiate proper estate planning.

Source: Forbes, "Estate Planning Lessons From James Gandolfini And Other Celebrity Legacies" Danielle and Andrew Mayoras, Aug. 06, 2014

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