YANML: Ohio estate lawsuit
June 17, 2021 3:33 PM   Subscribe

My partner has been named as a defendant in an Ohio estate lawsuit being brought by two of his aunts against one of their sisters, the deceased's caretaker. Partner is being pressured by the plaintiffs to sign paperwork to join their side. It is becoming a stressful situation for him and we could use some guidance about ramifications of any actions taken (or not taken).

Plaintiff Aunts brought a case against Defendant Aunt suing for inheritance of the property of their recently deceased stepdad (Partner's step-granddad), who died in 2020 at the age of 100.  From what we can tell, DefendAunt moved in with 93-year-old stepdad to care for him when his wife died in 2013, and she was designated the sole beneficiary of the property in a Transfer on Death Designation Affidavit the same year.  Plaintiff Aunts allege that the property was transferred as a result of undue influence and/or duress and claim that Defendant Aunt intimidated stepdad and threatened violence.

Plaintiff Aunts are demanding judgment for a constructive trust in which plaintiffs and defendants are equal beneficiaries (alternatively invalidation of death designation affidavit), control over cremains, and attorney/court fees. Plaintiffs' lawyer sent Motion for Joinder of Claims and Remedies for Partner to switch sides from defendant to plaintiff.  Instruction sheet from lawyer includes the following: "The reason you are named as a defendant is that we would have had to place you on the retainer and made you partially responsible for the attorney's fees, which we did not want to do.  Once you have signed the document and return it to the Court you will automatically become a plaintiff and all interest will be protected."

Defendant Aunt filed motion to dismiss, Plaintiff Aunts countered, and the court ruled that there are sufficient facts presented for the case to proceed. Defendant Aunt filed for estate to be relieved from administration because assets do not exceed statutory limits (<$35K).  Current property value estimate according to various real estate websites is ~$290K, but we have no idea what debts step-grandad may have had.  The hearing on this application was supposed to have taken place last week but there's no information about a ruling available on the probate court website.

Today Partner received a Notice of Lawsuit and Request for Waiver of Service for Summons describing itself as "a request that, to avoid expenses, you waive the formal service of a summons".  The waiver itself says Partner, if he signs, agrees to save expense of serving a summons, waives objection to absence of summons, and notes that failure to sign could result in default judgment entered against him. Partner could use inheritance money and cannot afford court fees, but is leery of trusting Plaintiff Aunts' lawyers. He is not close enough with any of the other potential inheritors (all still listed as defendants according to the probate court website) to ask for or trust their opinions.

In addition to receiving mountains of paperwork from Plaintiff Aunts' lawyers for the past six months, Partner is also getting pressure from Plaintiff Aunts themselves saying that they're trying to look out for him financially and that it's what his (recently deceased) mother, their sister, would have wanted. He is not convinced that is the case and is understandably uncomfortable signing paperwork when he knows nothing about any of these people or the situation itself.

We have many questions, but what we really need help with is figuring out what choices he has and the possible ramifications of each. It seems his choices are: do nothing and remain a defendant, sign paperwork to join the plaintiffs, or (maybe?) sign paperwork to relinquish his interest in the estate. If he does nothing, could he be held financially responsible for lawyer and court fees if Plaintiff Aunts win their case, or is that a scare tactic? Should he join Plaintiff Aunts in hopes of receiving some much-needed cash -- and if he did, would it be worth the headache of dealing with them and their lawyers? What would you do? Also accepting hypotheses regarding why Plaintiff Aunts' lawyers are being so pushy about this.

Thanks for reading. Partner is getting really worried and upset about this situation, and we appreciate any insight or advice.
posted by table of malcontents to Law & Government (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You absolutely need to talk to a lawyer. Is there a reason you haven’t yet done so?
posted by mr_roboto at 3:58 PM on June 17, 2021 [18 favorites]

You or your partner may have access to legal services if you have an employee assistance program at your work. Usually it is free for an initial consult and then you may get a referral. A good estate lawyer could also set your partner on the right track.
posted by bookrach at 4:34 PM on June 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

If plaintiff aunts really want him to join the case, perhaps they could pay for an attorney to review the documents and discuss the implications with your partner (NOT their own attorney - someone not affiliated with the case, who will have independent judgment).
posted by insectosaurus at 5:15 PM on June 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

I see a bunch of practical considerations discussed in this post. But what does your partner think is the ethical thing to do here? Does he think his step-granddad legitimately wanted Defendaunt to inherit his money? Then he should not agree to be a plaintiff.

Personally, as a caretaker, I am biased towards Defendaunt. It is a LOT of work to care for an elderly person in their home, and a great service to them to avoid a nursing home and indifferent care. The caretaker often forgoes some or all of the earnings they could have made during the caretaking period. But too often I have seen greedy relatives swoop in and try to get their "fair share" of the estate of a person they didn't help care for.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 5:26 PM on June 17, 2021 [29 favorites]

It is time to retain a lawyer, as any answers from random internet people are going to be worth what you paid for them.
posted by Aleyn at 5:27 PM on June 17, 2021

1- Seek independent legal advice.

2- I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice but ....if DefendAunt was the sole named beneficiary on the property what is the legal connection of your partner to all of this? What does your partner have to win/lose from a lawsuit. It seems to me that they would have no standing against your partner and joining the plaintiffs will only strengthen their case as a judge will see that the plaintiffs have the backing of other family members and maybe lend more credibility to their case. If your partner doesn't stand to gain anything from DefendAunt then what would they have to lose?

Sometimes attorneys make claims or statements to make a person believe what they are saying is completely true. Beware such claims/statements coming from a party which is looking for a gain.

If it were me I would ask the attorneys to keep me out of it as it doesn't seem like any of this is my business. This is an issue between the aunts and if your partner played no role in the caretaking or stands to inherit anything there is even less reason for them to be named either a plaintiff or defendant. Your partner has received multiple letters from the plaintiffs attorneys claiming that there is a great deal of expense and grief coming their way if they do not join the case with them against DefendAunt. I would be wary of that as that reeks of desperation but I would still consult my own attorney if only to take myself out of the equation and cover myself.
posted by eatcake at 5:53 PM on June 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don't know anything about the legal part of this, except many counties in Ohio have bar associations with legal referral services and you should try one of them if you don't know where to start finding an attorney. Most such services include a 30-minute consultation with a lawyer for $25 or so. I will say these aunts sounds like jerks.
posted by shadygrove at 6:01 PM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

You need to see a lawyer who practices law in the jurisdiction where the suit was filed. If you don't live in Ohio, you still need to talk to a lawyer who is admitted to the bar in Ohio and practices in Ohio, preferably in the same county or at least metro area where the case was filed. The lawyer needs to be a probate lawyer, sometimes call an estate lawyer.

Talk to several Ohio probate attorneys. Some will have a free consultation, some will have a reduced fee consultation. Sometimes just two hours of the attorney reading documents, asking question of the DefendantAunt's lawyer, and talking with you will give you the information you need to make a decision that will save you years of heartache and thousands in legal fees.

Remember, you are currently a DEFENDANT in this lawsuit. They didn't consult you before they filed the lawsuit. PlaintiffAunts are trying to get you to sign some documents that you don't understand, while you are unrepresented, and their lawyer is sending you letters purporting to tell you how this will only benefit you. PlaintiffAunts' lawyer is not your lawyer. Unless he is signing an engagement agreement with you before the documents are signed, he is seeking to advance the interest of PlaintiffAunts, not your interests. I'm not saying he is trying to cheat you, I'm saying he represents the interests of parties who are adverse to you in this suit, so don't take any advice from him. Get your own legal advice right away.
posted by KayQuestions at 6:04 PM on June 17, 2021 [16 favorites]

Pardon my typos above. A broken hand makes corrections harder.

Table of malcontents, there is nothing stopping you from asking questions of DefendantAunt's lawyer. You are officially a Defendant in the case, so it is only natural you would talk to other defendant's attorneys rather than the attorneys for the people who sued you. Questions like: They want me to sign this and change to being a plaintiff, why would they want me to do that? How will that benefit them? How will that affect me? How will that affect my good aunt, the caregiver for all those years? What is the total amount of the estate involved? How much of that is likely to be eaten up by legal fees on both sides of this lawsuit? How many years will this lawsuit hang over my life, providing stress and strife and depositions and hearings that limit my movements and suck up my energy? Does my aunt have a safe place to live and money to live on while this case is dragging on?

You needn't give DefendantAunt's attorney any information, except you name, address, phone number and position in the case, when you set up the appointment to speak to him. All information he already has. You should write down what he says and take that to your own lawyer(s) to see if it makes sense. Remember, he is there to advance the interests of your caregiver aunt, and those interests likely diverge from yours.
posted by KayQuestions at 6:21 PM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

it is only natural you would talk to other defendant's attorneys rather than the attorneys for the people who sued you

You shouldn’t be talking to anyone else’s lawyer. You should talk to your lawyer. Your lawyer can then talk to the other lawyers. You need a lawyer.

To conclude, lawyer.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:23 PM on June 17, 2021 [12 favorites]

In case you haven’t seen it yet, take a look at the Metafilter wiki page on getting a lawyer.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:29 PM on June 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

You need your own lawyer who has a fiduciary and ethical duty to protect your best interests. The lawyer for another party won’t be able to divulge details to you, and wouldn’t even be able to represent you and the other party at all if your interest don’t align. You should take the excellent advice up thread about the bar association referral service.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 6:30 PM on June 17, 2021

Yes, Mr. Roboto is correct. Get a lawyer, right away, and your lawyer can then talk to the other lawyers.
My advice was predicated on my sad knowledge that about 50% of people don't take advice to get a lawyer, right away, and so are taken advantage of by the most aggressive lawyer in the case.
posted by KayQuestions at 6:33 PM on June 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Lawyer, lawyer, lawyer. The request for waiver of service is a normal thing - but after you sign it, there is a deadline to answer the lawsuit.

Joining one side or the other may be the best way to minimize costs, but I would want more information (not from the plaintiffs) before doing anything. This does sound like a real mess, much sympathy to your partner!
posted by mersen at 4:11 AM on June 18, 2021

You or your partner may have access to legal services if you have an employee assistance program at your work.

In a situation similar to yours, I got a lawyer through my partner's work and they were great. Just don't talk to any of those family members until you talk to a lawyer, or they will twist what you say to make it seem like you agreed to something.

Sucks that this is happening. In a way it's good that he doesn't know these people very well. It's their choice to do this, whatever the damage to relationships. That is not on him! If he feels at all guilty or responsible, speaking to a lawyer may be a breath of fresh air.
posted by BibiRose at 7:50 AM on June 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

1. Get a lawyer. 2. I don't see why their lawyer is insisting that your partner is a defendant--only DefendAunt is. The Plaintiffs are claiming DefendAunt unduly influenced the decedent into changing his will. Your partner isn't named in the will at all, so there's nothing to sue them for. Your partner might have an interest in the estate IF DefendAunt actually did something wrong (is your partner the child of a predeceased sibling? The will may have originally benefited all the siblings and their heirs, which would include your partner). 3. The Plaintiffs have the burden to prove undue influence--it isn't enough that DefendAunt was there in a position to influence him--they have to show that she took advantage of her proximity to him and his reliance on her to make her the sole beneficiary. And since they're alleging that she was violent, they'll have to prove that too. 4. It is VERY common for a person to change their will to benefit their caretaker, especially when the caretaker was family and has made sacrifices to care for them. This adds to Plaintiff's burden of proof.

You should get an attorney. I have been editing books on estates law for over 30 years, but Ohio isn't one of my states, so I don't know Ohio law specifically. But it seems to me, from a distance, that their attorney is trying to pressure your partner into doing something that might not be the right thing. You need to ask a specialist.
posted by ceejaytee at 11:50 AM on June 18, 2021

As you say your partner could use the money from the estate, I'm assuming the only reason you haven't contacted your own lawyer yet is cost, in which case it's worth emphasizing the words above: "free first consultation." Call around until you find a lawyer who offers free first consultations - many, many lawyers do.
posted by mediareport at 3:57 AM on June 19, 2021

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