“Across the United States, probate litigation cases are on the rise,” said Smith Debnam probate litigator Brett Thompson, a trend he expects to continue for some time. “According to many economists, the greatest wealth transfer in our history is underway, with an estimated $41 trillion of wealth in motion. Add in the economic spin cycle of the last decade, a widening savings gap, and America’s high divorce rate – and you have a ripe environment for probate disputes.”
“As a whole, the children of baby boomers, or generation Xers, are overleveraged – they owe too much and haven’t saved enough,” said Smith Debnam probate litigator Cara Williams. “For the Xer, who makes up the majority of plaintiffs in probate disputes, motivation often extends beyond a potential windfall – in many cases, it’s a financial lifeline. And with the stakes that high, chances are pretty good the level of conflict will match.”
Williams and Thompson are attorneys at Raleigh-based law firm Smith Debnam. With backgrounds in elder law, estate planning and probate, Williams and Thompson are leading the firm’s response to the growing demand for legal counsel in resolving family estate disputes.
Drawing on Experience
After earning her law degree from Campbell University School of Law, Williams spent several years at the Wake County Clerk of Court, serving as the hearing officer for civil matters. “My time as the assistant clerk attorney has given me valuable perspective on what will work in court, including the best route to take to avoid extensive litigation,” she said.
Thompson spent more than a decade in cable news before law school, including a stint at CNN. He finds his news background comes in handy in estate litigation. “My ability to discern fact from opinion serves my clients well. It’s important to assemble the verifiable aspects into a narrative that expresses a client’s concerns and states their position clearly before the court,” he said.
Since graduating from the UNC School of Law, Thompson has focused his practice in the area of estate and elder law. Expanding into probate litigation has been a natural fit for him. “It’s exciting because every client’s story is unique,” he said. “I find it very motivating to help these clients during probably one of the most stressful times in their lives.
From Estate Planning to Litigation
“Estate litigation actions tend to be brought when the will wasn’t drafted properly, was illegally changed, or when family members believe the wording of the will doesn’t convey the decedent’s true intentions,” Williams said. “The best time to avert litigation is when the will is being planned. With our estate planning clients, a primary goal is getting to know them before we begin to write their will so we can gain a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish.”
“Litigation is a serious undertaking that involves a lot of emotions, especially when the will contains provisions that come as a surprise to family members. I advise all my estate planning clients to consider the impact of their decisions to ensure they’re not leaving behind an even bigger problem for their heirs to solve,” Thompson said. “In cases where the planning wasn’t adequate, we know how to ensure our client isn’t helpless to affect the outcome.”
“Through the years we have found that some of the most contentious disputes between family members have little to do with the money,” said Thompson. “It’s the mementos or family keepsakes that draw out the emotions, like grandma’s set of mixing bowls or dad’s rusty fishing rods – items typically not properly marked or designated in the will.”
“When a client hires us to litigate their case, we recognize they’re feeling vulnerable,” said Williams. “On the heels of a loved one passing, they are now having to confront family members over difficult estate issues – and the simple truth is no one walks away from that feeling like a winner. But, if we can help them see the light at the end of the tunnel – that’s the beginning of a new day.”