A caveat filing in Maryland is a legal action taken to prevent probate of a will or administration of an estate without notice to the filer. Here is an overview of caveat filings in Maryland, including what they are, how they are filed, how a personal representative should respond, and best practices for litigating caveat cases.
What is a Caveat Filing?
A caveat is a formal notice that certain actions relating to a decedent’s estate should not be taken without giving notice to the person filing the caveat. In Maryland, caveats are commonly filed to contest the validity of a will that has been submitted for probate with the register of wills. However, a caveat may also be filed to contest the appointment of a personal representative to administer an estate.
The purpose of filing a caveat is to notify the register of wills or orphans’ court that the will or appointment of personal representative is being contested by an interested party. This prevents the will from being admitted to probate or the estate from being administered until the validity of the will or appointment can be determined. The person who files a caveat is referred to as the “caveator.”
Who Can File a Caveat?
Under Maryland law, any interested person may file a caveat to a will or estate administration. Interested persons include heirs who stand to inherit under a prior will or by intestacy, beneficiaries under a prior or later will, creditors of the estate, trustees named in a prior will, and any other person who has an interest in the estate.
To file a caveat, the interested person does not need to provide definite proof that the will is invalid. Instead, they must simply state their interest in the estate and their reasons for believing the will is improper or invalid. This alerts the register of wills that the will may be contested.
How is a Caveat Filed in Maryland?
Caveats in Maryland are filed with the register of wills in the county where the will is submitted for probate or where the estate is to be administered. The caveat must be filed before the will is admitted to probate or before letters of administration are issued to a personal representative.
To file a caveat, the caveator must submit a petition containing:
- The caveator’s name, address, and interest in the estate
- A statement that the caveator has cause to believe the will submitted is not valid
- The grounds on which the caveator believes the will is invalid
- A request that probate or administration be suspended until the caveat can be adjudicated
The caveat petition must be served on the personal representative named in the will and any other interested persons. The orphans’ court will then hold a hearing to determine the validity of the will and/or appointment of personal representative.
How Should a Personal Representative Respond?
If a caveat is filed against an estate for which you have been appointed personal representative, you should consult with an experienced probate litigation attorney. You will need to file a response to the caveat petition with the orphans’ court within the required timeframe, from of being served.
The response should address the specific grounds on which the caveator is contesting the will or your appointment as personal representative. You will need to gather evidence and testimony to rebut the caveator’s allegations. If you have proof the will is valid, such as affidavits of the attesting witnesses, you should submit this to defend the will against the caveat.
You should also notify any other interested parties that the caveat has been filed and advise them to seek counsel if they wish to participate in defending the will. As personal representative, it is your duty to defend the will against challenges to its validity.
Best Practices in Litigating Caveat Cases
Caveat litigation can become complex, so hiring an experienced probate litigation attorney is crucial. Here are some best practices for personal representatives and beneficiaries defending a will against a caveat:
- Consult counsel immediately upon being served with a caveat petition to discuss your response deadline.
- If possible, avoid appointment as personal representative until the caveat is resolved, as you could be liable for losses if you administer an estate under an invalid will.
- Thoroughly investigate the caveator’s standing and reasons for challenging the will. Oftentimes, settlement avoids lengthy litigation.
- Collect robust evidence about the validity of the will, such as affidavits from drafting attorneys or witnesses present when it was signed.
- Take thorough inventories of the estate’s assets and use estate funds judiciously in case probate is denied.
- Interview all key witnesses while events are fresh in their minds. Memorialize interviews in affidavits.
- Consider using mediation to reach a compromise with the caveator before engaging in litigation.
- Comply with all orphans’ court rules and processes to avoid procedural challenges.
Caveat litigation can disrupt estate administration and deplete estate assets in legal costs. Personal representatives and beneficiaries should work promptly and collaboratively with counsel to resolve caveat petitions through settlement or defense. With proper adherence to Maryland law and rules of procedure, you can defeat a non-meritorious caveat and ensure the decedent’s wishes are fulfilled. Our office routinely represents estates and personal representatives facing these challenges, and we are well equipped to help you navigate these issues.
Do’s and Don’ts in Caveat Proceedings
Here are Twenty (20) Do’s and Don’ts for executors and personal representatives responding to caveat filings in Maryland:
- Consult an experienced probate litigation attorney as soon as you are served with a caveat.
- File a timely response to the caveat petition within the required timeframe.
- Thoroughly investigate the caveator’s standing and reasons for challenging the will.
- Gather solid evidence and affidavits supporting the validity of the will.
- Interview key witnesses while events are fresh in their minds.
- Notify all interested parties that a caveat has been filed.
- Use estate funds judiciously in case probate is denied.
- Take complete estate inventories in case improper distributions are alleged.
- Explore settlement negotiations before engaging in litigation.
- Comply with all court procedural rules and deadlines.
- Ignore the caveat petition’s service deadline for a response.
- Proceed with full estate administration until the caveat is resolved.
- Make significant distributions from the estate until the will is upheld.
- Deplete estate assets by over-litigating if settlement is an option.
- Fail to secure proper legal representation and advice.
- Wait too long to interview essential witnesses to the will execution.
- Neglect to file required pleadings, notices, and documents in court.
- Fail to properly notify all interested parties about the caveat filing.
- Omit detailed estate inventories and accountings if the estate is distributed.
- Suppress evidence that could negatively impact the validity of the will.
Following these dos and don’ts will help executors and personal representatives properly respond to caveat filings under Maryland law. Key tenets are acting quickly, judiciously managing estate assets, consulting experienced counsel like JDKatz, P.C., and either settling or vigorously defending the will’s validity based on the circumstances.