Someone who has prepared a will may gather the family together to explain the provisions and what each heir can expect to receive.

Other times, the heirs have no idea what the decedent put in his or her will, and an inheritance or lack thereof may come as an unwelcome surprise, spawning fierce family arguments as illustrated by two famous probate cases.

The Hyatt Hotel heir

As one of the founders of Hyatt Hotels, Jay Pritzker had amassed a fortune of $15 billion. He left instructions for relatives to continue operating the hotel chain as a family enterprise. However, two of the Pritzker grandchildren brought a lawsuit against their father, Robert, and other relatives, accusing them of taking approximately $1 billion out of their trust funds. The probate case settled in 2005. The grandchildren received $500 million apiece and the remaining assets were distributed among 11 other family members.

The Johnson & Johnson heir

Another high-profile probate case involved the assets of the estate of John Seward Johnson, a son of the co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Company. Upon his death in 1983, John Seward left most of his millions to his third wife. His children contested the will, saying that Mrs. Johnson, a former maid who was 42 years younger than her late husband, abused him and coerced him into leaving the major part of his estate to her. The judge agreed on the grounds that John Seward Johnson was mentally incompetent at the time he signed his will. The court ordered Mrs. Johnson to pay $160 million to the children.

Less than a millionaire

Millions of dollars do not have to be at stake when the heirs of the deceased begin arguing over the assets that a probate proceeding brings to light. It is not uncommon for beneficiaries to file suit against anyone they believe is cheating them out of an inheritance, no matter how much money or real property there is. Unhappy heirs have legal options to explore in an effort to secure what they feel is rightfully theirs.