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The Limitations of Equity: A Closer Look at Probate Law

On Behalf of | Jun 8, 2023 | Firm News

Equitable remedies are intended to supplement and complement existing law, not to override it. This principle is foundational to the legal system, ensuring consistency and predictability, which are both necessary to uphold confidence in the rule of law. If the law needs to be changed, it is primarily the role of the legislature, not the courts, to do so.

In Indiana, equitable remedies such as reformation, constructive trusts, equitable liens, and injunctions are available in probate cases. Those remedies are typically confined to cases involving fraud, breach of duty, or wrongful acquisition of property. Courts do not usually provide equitable relief to override clear statutory rules. It is the legislative judgement that dictates how courts should resolve disputes concerning decedents’ estates.

Courts refrain from exercising equitable powers when there is adequate remedy in existing law. This principle, that “equity follows the law”, has been a foundational part of Indiana law for over a century and means that when substantial justice can be accomplished by following the law, courts generally will not exercise their equitable powers.

This general principle applies to probate cases. When there is a remedy under the Probate Code to address an alleged harm, courts will generally not fashion an equitable remedy. For example, the law permits personal representatives to maintain suits in court for the recovery of possession property of the estate, or for trespass or waste committed on the estate. This provision, in fact, dates back prior to the 1953 enactment of the Indiana Probate Code. If the personal representative does not file a claim within the estate, courts will generally not impose an equitable remedy as a substitute to the existing procedure.

In conclusion, although equitable remedies sometimes serve to deliver justice where statutes may fall short, their use is generally restricted to cases when adequate legal remedies do not exist. When a specific remedy is available within the Probate Code, it is not appropriate or necessary to apply an equitable remedy.