Litigation over what’s left behind on the rise

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BALTIMORE (AP) - Lawyers who used to handle the occasional trust or will dispute are finding themselves in Orphans’ Court more and more these days. For some, what was once a “spinoff” has turned into their main practice area.

In the last five years, the total number of hearings annually in Baltimore and five Maryland counties increased by about 24 percent, according to records collected from county Orphans’ Courts.

Fiduciary litigation attorneys have seen this uptick reflected in their own caseloads, but are divided on what is behind it. Reasons range from society’s more combative nature to more inexperienced trustees trying to set up estates.

“These are colorful cases that are about people’s lives,” said Kelly M. Preteroti, a fiduciary litigation attorney at Ober ‘ Kaler in Baltimore.

Preteroti and fellow Ober ‘ Kaler attorney James E. Edwards Jr., who has been practicing in this area of law for more than 10 years, have seen the number of fiduciary litigation cases in their practice increase five-fold in the last five years. Particularly, they have seen more cases dealing with the estates of middle-class people who had modest amounts of money, where in the past, disputes tended to involve more wealthy estates.

Edwards and Preteroti credit the uptick partially to the more complicated family trees of modern times with multiple marriages sprouting branches of children and stepchildren.

Plus, they said people in general seem to be more combative, leading to more of these cases going to court.

“People are willing to fight over a piece of jewelry because it has sentimental value,” Edwards said.

Judge Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson, chief judge of the Baltimore City Orphans’ Court, said she has noticed that trend in her courtroom.

“I think people may be more litigious now,” Baylor-Thompson said. “They just file for anything.”

Yet another reason, Edwards and Preteroti said, is that more people are waiting longer to write wills. A will written nearer the end of life, often when the testator’s health has declined, is much more vulnerable to attack, they said.

“The combination of not always having an intact family and procrastination has given rise to this,” Edwards said.

Of the state’s five largest jurisdictions - Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, in addition to the city of Baltimore - Anne Arundel County had the largest percentage increase in hearings over the past five years, at 62 percent. Howard County Orphans’ Court was the only one of the five that saw hearings decrease, with a 9 percent drop over five years. Prince George’s County topped the list in raw numbers, followed by Baltimore city.

In Prince George’s County, Orphans’ Court hearings increased about 24 percent over the past five years, rising from 1,747 in 2009 to a peak of 2,217 in 2012 before nudging down to 2,164 last year.

Baltimore city consistently had the second-highest numbers, reaching its five-year high of 1,365 in 2013 - a 37 percent increase since 2009.

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