While closing an estate is meant to be final and conclusive, there are circumstances that may warrant reopening probate. When determining if it’s necessary to reopen probate, the judge will assess the petitioner’s reasoning, evidence, and whether or not the claim falls within the statute of limitations for reopening probate.
Reopening Probate to Correct an Error
Probate judges have the right to file a motion for reopening probate if they need to correct an error of fact or law in the original decision. If the discovery is made more than three years after the original decision, the judge’s motion will need to assert that the error of fact or law would result in a manifest injustice if uncorrected.
If an interested party to the estate discovers an error, he or she will need to file a petition within three years of the original decision and no more than one year after the discovery. The court may accept a petition more than three years after the original decision if the uncorrected error would result in a manifest injustice, but the petition must still be filed within one year of the petitioner’s discovery of the alleged error.
Any petition filed by an interested party needs to fully set forth the grounds for reopening probate, and evidence of when the alleged error was discovered. If the grounds for reopening probate are based on alleged errors of fact, the petition will need to be supported by an affidavit.
Reopening Probate Based on a New Discovery
Interested parties may be able to reopen probate based on a new discovery that occurred after probate was closed. In such cases, the interested party needs to file a petition to reopen probate within two years of the decedent’s passing or within one year of the estate’s closing, whichever deadline occurs first. There are a number of discoveries that can warrant reopening probate. Here are the four most common situations:
- Discovering a will – “intestate” estates that go through probate without a will are distributed according to the state’s intestate succession laws, which tend to favor the surviving spouse. A newly discovered will that directly bequeaths assets to children, other family members, or charities would likely have a significant impact. If the newly discovered will is a more-recent version of the will accepted by the probate court, the court will consider the differences between the two documents to determine if reopening probate is necessary.
- Discovering undistributed assets – if the undistributed assets are covered by the will (specifically bequeathed or generally alluded to), then they will be transferred to the appropriate beneficiaries according to the will’s instructions. If the undistributed assets are not covered by the will, they’ll be distributed according to the state’s intestacy laws. In either case, the court will re-appoint the personal representative to manage the distribution (ARS 14-3938). If the assets have a designated beneficiary listed on the account, then the assets may be able to transfer directly to the beneficiary without reopening probate.
- Discovering claims against the estate – Arizona law gives creditors 120 days to file a valid claim against an estate once a public notice of probate has been posted in the local newspaper (ARS 14-3802). Creditors who fail to submit their claims in a timely manner risk having their claims invalidated, so it’s rare to see a creditor wait to submit a claim until after probate is closed. Considering that, it’s no surprise that the majority of creditor claims submitted after probate is closed tend to be fraudulent. If a creditor submits a valid claim after probate is closed, the court will probably refuse to reopen probate, and the claim will be dismissed.
- Discovering an heir – while this happens fairly often in movies and television, it’s not too common in reality. The personal representative is required to do their due diligence into who the decedent’s living beneficiaries and heirs are, and the identified individuals (known as interested parties) will be given multiple notices to apprise them of the probate process. If a beneficiary or heir received sufficient notices but failed to respond or appear in court to claim their inheritance before the estate was closed, the court will likely deny their request to reopen probate. In rare cases where a mistake was made, and a previously unknown heir comes forward, the court will need to determine whether or not the heir was aware of the probate proceedings and if they had an opportunity to come forward during probate.
Reopening Probate Due to Litigation
If the decedent’s family successfully sues another party for wrongful death, the decedent’s estate will receive the monetary damages and will subsequently need to distribute the newly acquired assets to the estate’s beneficiaries. There are also cases where an estate is sued by other parties for the decedent’s wrongdoing, and the estate may be subject to a court judgement. In either case, the probate court will usually postpone closing the estate until after the litigation has concluded, so it’s rare to see these occur after probate is closed.
Contesting the Actions of the Personal Representative
Interested parties have the right to contest the activities of the estate’s personal representative, including the final distribution of assets to the estate’s beneficiaries and heirs. Interested parties will need to submit their complaint to the court within two years of the decedent’s passing, or within six months of the estate’s closing, whichever deadline occurs first. One notable exception to this rule would be if the court finds evidence that the personal representative committed fraud, theft, or some other illegal activity.
How to Reopen Probate
If you have made a discovery that may warrant reopening probate, you should begin by discussing your findings with a probate attorney. With the help of your attorney, you’ll need to submit a petition to reopen probate that clearly establishes the grounds for reopening and offers evidence (probably in the form of an affidavit) as to when you made the discovery.
Redistributing Assets From a Closed Estate
Keep in mind that reclaiming assets that have been lawfully distributed to beneficiaries and heirs is extremely difficult. Even if the court deems it necessary to reclaim and redistribute assets, it’s hard to retake assets that have been sold or spent. As such, petitioning to reopen probate to distribute newly discovered assets is significantly easier than reopening probate to redistribute assets or settle new claims.