Trusts, Estates and Fiduciary Litigation
- Holland & Knight's Trusts, Estates and Fiduciary Litigation Team is composed of seasoned trial lawyers who practice before both state and federal courts, including probate and tax courts. We handle all types of trust and estate litigation, including will contests, breaches of fiduciary duty, removal of trustees, reformation of instruments, elder abuse, and other contests based on allegations of lack of capacity and undue influence.
- Our team is supported by Holland & Knight’s Private Wealth Services Group, the largest such practice in the U.S. From initial case analysis to the development of trial and settlement strategies, the team works closely with our Private Wealth Services attorneys in matters involving estate planning and administration, asset management, tax, and closely held and family businesses.
The Holland & Knight Trusts, Estates and Fiduciary Litigation Team represents corporate, institutional and individual clients in disputes related to wills, trusts, estates and fiduciary issues. We also address pre-death disputes, such as issues of capacity, undue influence and financial elder abuse.
Our attorneys represent clients in matters related to breaches of fiduciary duty, including improper asset management, self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and improper administration and distributions, as well as accounting disputes, petitions for court instructions, reformation of instruments and removal of fiduciaries, contests on the grounds of undue influence, lack of capacity, fraud, duress and forgery, and claims involving international succession matters.
Impressed clients say:
They actually listen to the client and ascertain what best serves the client's needs; their research is top-notch and they present written arguments in a clear, succinct manner. … The team is highly competent with a high degree of integrity. They plan a long-term strategy and diligently work toward their goals without slacking off. They are flexible and adaptable to any disruptions.
– Chambers High Net Worth 2021 guide
Few firms can equal the scope of our practice. Our Trusts, Estates and Fiduciary Litigation Team works in concert with one of the largest Private Wealth Services groups in the United States, with attorneys in offices across the nation who have deep experience in all areas of trusts, estates and taxation. Issues often cover the management of complex assets, such as real estate or family businesses, that are part of an inheritance or trust. Our litigation team also draws on the knowledge of many Holland & Knight practices with national footprints, including real estate, land use, corporate and securities, and labor and employment.
Capacity And Undue Influence Issues
As the U.S. population ages, we increasingly see challenges raised regarding the capacity of donors and fiduciaries, as well as allegations of undue influence and elder abuse. We are experienced in all aspects of these matters, including effectively utilizing expert witnesses and discovery, both of which are often pivotal in helping courts find the clarity needed to resolve these matters fairly.
For example, we defended challenges to the will of a 104-year-old woman who left an estate of $300 million. While distant relatives alleged she was unduly influenced by caregivers and others, we were able to show her state of mind and intentions through meticulous discovery, and we settled the matter on terms consistent with her will.
Breach of Fiduciary Claims
Trustees and other fiduciaries continue to face litigation by beneficiaries and others who allege breach of fiduciary duty. Over the years, we have represented both fiduciaries and beneficiaries, giving us a broad understanding of how fiduciary disputes emerge and optimal strategies for resolving them.
Often, we find that disputes can be avoided by establishing clear policies and protocols for trust and estate administration, and our attorneys are experienced in advising trustees on how to structure their oversight to adhere to best practices and the law.
When disputes must proceed to litigation, we draw on an experienced team of litigators that has successfully won dismissals and verdicts, or achieved favorable settlements, for matters valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. In most cases, it is not in the best economic interest of either side to engage in protracted litigation, and our attorneys help clients work toward solutions that resolve disputes short of going to trial.
Dispute Resolution Strategies
Hundreds of trials have taught us what positions win and lose in court. Our understanding of what influences favorable outcomes in litigation helps us proactively resolve disputes and reduce the risks of lawsuits for clients who consult us in the review and planning processes.
Fiduciaries also retain us to review their best practices and policies to avoid litigation. We measure their practices against our own litigation experience as well as national standards. Attention to the latest case law and best practices, appropriate planning and periodic review are the most effective ways for clients to reduce their exposure to expensive litigation.
Advocating for Nonprofits
Nonprofit organizations named as beneficiaries turn to our lawyers when there are challenges to donors' bequests, breaches of trust in the administration of the trust or estate, or protracted delays in distributions. We ensure that donors' intentions are carried out whether via settlement or in court.
Our goal is to obtain the maximum benefits for nonprofits, and to that end we work to expedite distributions and reduce administrative fees. All types of nonprofits, especially those with significant assets, have relied on Holland & Knight to carry out the intentions of donors. Our clients have included charities in the medical, religious and educational sectors, among others. We pride ourselves on transparency and provide our clients with online access to their working files.
Protecting the Elderly from Abuse
Unfortunately, elderly people with diminished capacity have been and continue to be abused – financially and otherwise – often by caregivers and family members. Our experience in this area and then in securing court protection for film star Mickey Rooney, who was the victim of such abuse, led us to establish an elder abuse pro bono program. The Mickey Rooney Elder Abuse Pro Bono Project helps protect seniors who otherwise could not afford legal services and aids them in reclaiming money and assets they have lost. We also work closely with local legal aid programs and support them in protecting the elderly from abuse. Holland & Knight was honored as "Law Firm of the Year" in 2014 by Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida for our pro bono efforts on behalf of the elderly and veterans.
A National Reputation
Our litigators bring the experience of the entire Holland & Knight Private Wealth Services Group to every matter. Chambers USA lauds our Band 2-ranked Wealth Management team's "nationwide reputation" and "impressive geographical coverage." Holland & Knight has more Fellows of the American College of Trust & Estate Counsel than any other law firm.
Other recent recognition includes:
- USA Private Client Team of the Year for the East Coast, 2020 Chambers High Net Worth guide
- Leading firm for Nationwide Private Wealth Law, 2016-2023 Chambers High Net Worth guides
- Law Firm of the Year in Trusts & Estates Law, 2023 U.S. News – Best Lawyers "Best Law Firms" guide; firm also earned same honor in 2017
- First-tier ranking in Trusts & Estates Law, 2014-2023 U.S. News – Best Lawyers "Best Law Firms" guides
- Top-listed firm for Trusts & Estates, Trusts & Estates Litigation, and Closely Held Companies and Family Businesses Law in the 2013-2023 Best Lawyers in America guides
- $100 million trust dispute. We represented an institutional trustee in a dispute with two individual co-trustees of two trusts collectively valued at more than $100 million.
- Trustee mismanagement of investments. Our attorneys successfully represented trustees in a suit seeking $20 million in damages for the alleged failure to diversify a highly concentrated position in stock that had been placed in a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT).
- Estate claim against financial institution. We successfully represented a bank in a claim by the administrator of a decedent's estate who argued the bank improperly paid out more than $650,000 to the decedent's fiancée as a surviving tenant.
- Removal of a co-fiduciary. Our lawyers represented a trustee who sought to remove, and did remove, a co-fiduciary for breach of fiduciary duty, negligence and conflict of interests, leading to the appointment of a successor co-fiduciary.
- Valuation of inter vivos gifts. Lawyers on our team represented trustees in a challenge by a beneficiary to a prior trustee's valuation of inter vivos gifts, in which the trust instrument called for the equalization of trust shares based on past gifts.
- Breach of fiduciary duty defense. We prevailed, through partial summary judgment and then trial, in securing a judgment for a defendant accused of breaching fiduciary duties arising out of the transfer of his shares in a substantial family business to trusts for his children.
- Federal gift tax. Our attorneys won, on behalf of a decedent's estate, an unprecedented federal gift tax case, establishing at trial in the U.S. Tax Court that the estate did not owe approximately $20 million in gift tax, interest and penalties arising out of the settlement of litigation concerning the ownership of a family business.
- Unborn child beneficiary. We represented an unborn and unascertained child of a putative father who died, leaving a large trust fund that was to be divided into equal shares for his children.
- Personal representative mismanagement. We successfully defended a personal representative against claims of estate mismanagement and breach of fiduciary duty.