Of the many reasons estate litigation can get so expansive (and expensive), family relationships often take a central role. In addition to the depth and complexity of relationships among family members, the sheer number of relationships to investigate and pin down when a claim is raised can make estate litigation particularly toilsome. For an undue influence case, for example, you may want to track down and interview every person who interacted with the testator within a certain period of time before and after the will was executed. At least an undue influence case puts a premium on evidence close to the execution of the will. For some disputes, the relevant time period may stretch decades.
In Debter v. Stephens, the Georgia Supreme Court highlighted the danger of not running all the evidence to ground early on. After summary judgment was entered against the caveator – who was one of two out-of-wedlock children of the testator, who had claimed that the will was the product of undue influence, and who alleged that his father intended for him to share in the estate as if he were formally legitimated – the caveator filed a motion for new trial asserting that he had discovered new material evidence that undermined the summary judgment order. This evidence sounded pretty good, too – affidavits from a number of people averring, among other things, that the testator openly acknowledged the caveator as his son, that the testator intended to include the caveator in his will, and that in the end the testator seemed confused and addled. That just may have been good enough to survive summary judgment. But it came too late.
While the summary judgment order was affirmed on the grounds that the appeal was not timely, the Georgia Supreme Court still took the time to address that “newly discovered evidence” by stating that the caveator’s “new” evidence was evidence the caveator should have, but failed to, produce earlier in the case. So, regardless of the side you are on, it pays to dig into those family relationships early on, uncover those friendships no matter how numerous, and run down witnesses or the door may be forever closed to some great testimony.