An estate dispute usually arises when the beneficaries of a will feel that they’ve been left out of the will, or that the will is invalid or suspicious. One of Queensland’s most successful business women has found herself in court, accused of manipulating her mother into leaving her many more millions of dollars in the will than her sister.

This high profile estate dispute involves Sarina Russo, her sister and her late mother. The will of Sarina Russo’s mother is the subject of an estate dispute, with allegations from Sarina Russo’s sister that their non-English speaking mother could not be capable of understanding the will when she signed. At the date of signing, Maria Russo was 94 and had many mental and physical conditions which may have impacted her lack of understanding. While this may seem a small issue, the act of Maria signing her will left Sarina a few million dollars in front of Maria’s four other children. The will also stated that Sarina would receive more money to pay for maintenance expenses of Maria’s property.

Mrs Pennisi, Sarina’ sister, has applied to the Supreme Court for further provision from the estate, claiming Sarina used her advantage in helping her mother write the will and that it was mainly Sarina who instructed the lawyer, Gino Milani, when writing and drafting the will for signing. Mrs Pennisi also argues that Mrs Russo would not have understood the contents of the will as it was written in English and Mrs Russo spoke Italian and Sicilian. Therefore, it is stated that Mrs Russo could not read the will and therefore her signature is null and void.

estate dispute, contesting a will, executor disputes, family provision claims, In addition to the language barrier it was also brought to the court’s attention that Mrs Russo suffered from several mental illnesses and therefore may have affected her decision to sign the will that entitled Sarina to a much larger amount of money than her siblings. In addition, Ms Pennisi claims that Mr Milani did not explain the elements of the will and how out of the four children, Sarina was being greatly advantaged. The will also set up a testamentary trust fund with Sarina being named the trustee. This means that Sarina effectively has control of the estate assets and what the beneficiaries would be entitled to receive.

In the estate dispute, Sarina argues that she believed her mother had the capacity to sign the will and that Mrs Russo wished to reward Sarina as she had been contributing financially to Mrs Russo’s welfare and property. Yet Mrs Pennisi is demanding the judge divide all her mother’s assets equally between all four children.

The legal aspects
This case is a typical estate dispute. Disputes can arise in a number of circumstances and this case is a clear example of why many wills are contested. In this case, the applicant claims that the will was prepared by Sarina who now clearly benefits from the decisions made in the will. The will was also signed by Mrs Russo who at the time may not have had the capacity to sign and agree to the conditions of the will.

Sarina was also made the executor of the will and her three siblings believe that she is not adequately fulfilling obligations as an executor. Enormous obligations are cast upon an executor to gather in the estate, pay all testamentary debts and expenses and to distribute the estate in a correct and legal way. Ms Pennisi claims that Sarina has not fulfilled her obligations as an executor  by refusing to administer the estate or allow Ms Pennisi to look at a copy of the will.

estate dispute, contesting a will, executor disputes, family provision claims, This estate dispute is also known as a Family Provision claim. In this situation, where a beneficiary believes that the will maker has not adequately divided up the assets in a fair or reasonable way, they may be eligible to lodge a Family Provision claim. This claim asks the court for further provision from the estate. However, it is up to the court as to whether the applicant will be successful in their claim.

What To Do If You Have An Estate Dispute

Estate disputes are fairly common. If issues arise, it is recommended to seek immediate help or advice from a solicitor. In some cases, the will may no longer be valid, it may be suspicious or you may believe that the will-maker does not have the mental capacity to write a will. An estate dispute usually unfolds in the following way:

  • Ascertain the date of death
  • Obtain a copy of the will from the solicitor
  • Seek legal advice urgently – in Queensland, you only have six months from the date of death to challenge a will. Outside of this time frame, you will lose your opportunity.
  • A will challenge is either settled out of court, or if this isn’t possible, will be decided by a judge in court.

Bryan Mitchell is an Accredited Specialist in Succession Law (wills and estates), and every client receives the benefit of his expertise. Contact us now for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.