Sometimes disputes arise under a will or trust, such as a contest about the validity of a will, a dispute about the meaning of the terms of a will or trust, or an action against a trustee. When that happens, we work to resolve the dispute out of court, if possible. When the dispute cannot be resolved by settlement, the firm’s seasoned trial lawyers work with our experienced trusts and estates lawyers to take the case to court.
In 2011, we won a ground-breaking ruling in the highest court of the District of Columbia. In this case, the personal representative had relied upon the estate’s attorney to file an estate tax return on time, but the attorney had failed to do so. The appeals court held that the personal representative was not personally liable to the heirs of the estate for the mistakes made by the attorney. Our advocacy led to this important ruling that clearly delineates the duties of the personal representative and the attorney for an estate.
Trusts are an important tool that families can use to protect assets and pass wealth to future generations. When the beneficiary of a trust is facing divorce, he or she will be concerned that the trust assets and income may be vulnerable to a spousal claim. Such a claim can include equitable division of property, spousal or child support, and an award of legal fees and costs.
Whether and to what extent a beneficiary’s interest in a trust can be subject to a spousal claim at divorce depends on:
Many couples establish savings for the college education of their children. A Section 529 account is an attractive vehicle for these savings, as discussed in Adam Swaim’s article. What happens to a 529 account if the parents divorce? The appeals courts of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia do not yet appear to have wrestled with a parental dispute about a 529 account in a divorce. Only a few cases from courts around the country have done so. They offer some guidance to parties and their lawyers as to how our courts may handle a dispute over a 529 account that arises between divorcing parents. More importantly, they point out issues that parties should address when negotiating a marital settlement agreement where they have a Section 529 account for a child.
Some key legal aspects of Section 529 accounts:
One of the largest expenses a family will incur is very likely the cost of a child’s education. In order to encourage early participation in saving for education expenses, Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code permits states to provide tax-advantaged savings plans (“529 plans”). A 529 plan account may be used to help pay for a beneficiary’s tuition at an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school (capped at $10,000 per year). It can also be used to pay higher education expenses, such as tuition, fees, books, supplies (including computers and related equipment), and room and board (on-campus and off-campus housing, with certain limitations), at an eligible higher education institution. An eligible higher education institution is generally any college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution eligible to participate in a student aid program… MORE >
Parenting Plans: Meeting the Challenges with Facts and Analysis
After a separation or divorce, parents need to have a plan to raise their children. It can be particularly challenging to navigate a fundamentally cooperative undertaking after the parents’ relationship has ended. In Parenting Plans: Meeting the Challenges with Facts and Analysis (American Bar Association 2018), author Daniel Hynan, Ph.D., analyzes some of the issues a parenting plan should address. Dr. Hynan blends individual assessment with scientific studies in making his recommendations. Because nearly a quarter of all children of divorce suffer “significant adjustment problems,” it’s critical to make sure that each parenting plan fits the family. A well-constructed parenting plan can account for scheduling, decision-making, and other contingencies that might arise. Dr. Hynan provides guidance for lawyers, mediators, and other professionals who work with parents seeking to develop parenting plans… MORE >
Morriah Horani, a partner in the firm, is an experienced trial lawyer who handles disputes about child custody, division of property at divorce, and child and spousal support. Several years ago, she decided to expand her litigation practice to include resolving disputes arising out of estates and trusts. It seemed like a natural expansion of her family law practice as these cases often involve family members at war with each other. For this article Morriah answered some questions about her estate and trust litigation practice.
What is fiduciary litigation or estate and trust litigation?
This is an umbrella term that encompasses disputes about trusts or the estate of a deceased person. Litigation may involve issues stemming from a will, a beneficiary designation, a power of attorney, or a trust. A will dispute, for example, may be about whether a document purporting to be a will… MORE >
A marital agreement can take the form of a premarital agreement, a postmarital agreement, or a separation agreement, i.e., an agreement that settles property rights (and other issues) between parties who intend to divorce. A marital agreement may provide for the disposition of assets at death; it may require one or both parties to provide for the other or a child at death after divorce; or it may waive rights at death. When the terms of a marital agreement and a beneficiary designation conflict with each other, the law will either validate or annul the designation, depending on the jurisdiction, the type of asset, and the language of the marital agreement.
The District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland all have laws that revoke at divorce either the entire will or the portions benefitting a… MORE >
When is a door not a door? (Answer: When it is ajar.)
When is an irrevocable trust not irrevocable? Answer: Pretty much all the time. That is, perhaps the irrevocable trust cannot be revoked per se but, with a little creative thinking and cooperation, it may be possible to modify, decant, or terminate an irrevocable trust. This is not the kind of news that makes headlines (except in our newsletter), but great changes are afoot in trust planning.
In the past 18 years, more than 30 jurisdictions (including DC, MD, and VA) have enacted a version of the Uniform Trust Code, shifting trust law away from arcane rules buried in old court decisions and into the modern era. Many jurisdictions (again including DC, MD, and VA) have also revised laws that used to prohibit extremely long-term trusts,… MORE >
B22-0169, the Electronic Signature Authorization Act of 2017, is pending before the DC Council, and it is dreadful. The Uniform Law Commission (ULC), relevant sections of the DC Bar, and a number of DC Fellows of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) have submitted, formally or informally, written opposition to the bill. We have it on good authority that this bill is unlikely to pass, and we hope that is the case.
Are electronic wills coming? Of course they are. Last year in Australia, an unsent text message was accepted for probate as someone’s last will and testament. (Unsent! With an emoji in it!) In July of this year, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court decision to accept for… MORE >
Family lawyers are increasingly hearing from divorced clients who are getting ready to retire or have retired and who have a spousal support obligation or a right to receive support under a court order. A court order may result from a trial or as part of a settlement agreement adopted by a court in the judgment of divorce. Some payors think alimony payments automatically end at retirement, or that a court will decide to terminate payments at retirement as a matter of course, but this is not necessarily so.
Court-ordered spousal support terminates automatically only on the death of either party or—in Maryland and Virginia, but not the District—upon remarriage of the recipient. When a court orders indefinite spousal support, i.e., support without a predetermined… MORE >
In June 2018, Eric P. Bacaj joined the firm as an associate after eight years as a criminal prosecutor: almost four years in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and four years as an Assistant United States Attorney in Charleston, West Virginia. As a former prosecutor he brings a wealth of courtroom experience to his new position with the firm’s Divorce and Family Law Group.
With nearly all of his extended family in the DC area, joining Pasternak & Fidis was a homecoming for Eric. At Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, he got an undergraduate degree in Political Science. In his second year, he took a course on the Supreme Court from Susan Gellman, a civil rights lawyer, who taught it as a typical law school course, with a law school casebook and the Socratic method, requiring students to make legal arguments and challenging… MORE >