A Last Will and Testament is a legal document that specifies who receives a deceased person’s (decedent) property and who handles the estate. A will contest, also known as a caveat, is a special proceeding that seeks to invalidate the will or a specific provision of the will.
Who Can Contest a Will?
A will may be contested by the decedent’s heirs, beneficiaries named in the will, and/or beneficiaries named in a previous will.
What are Valid Reasons to Contest a Will?
A common misconception is that a beneficiary mentioned in the will can litigate the will based on its fairness in distributing assets. An individual does not have a legal basis challenge a will solely because they disagree with one or more distributions in the will.
A will, however, may be contested on one or more of the following grounds: (1) the defective execution of the will; (2) the decedent’s lack of testamentary capacity; (3) the will or a gift in it is a product of undue influence; or (4) the will was procured by fraud.
Defective Execution: A will can be declared invalid for improper execution. The lack of necessary witnesses or its failure to include certain provisions can affect a will’s legitimacy, and provide grounds to dispute the will.
Testamentary Capacity: A concern regarding the decedent’s mental state is a frequent basis of a will contest. To have the mental capacity needed for a valid will, the decedent at the time he or she signs the will must be able to sufficiently comprehend and acknowledge the document they are signing, the assets they are giving away and the beneficiaries named in the will.
Undue Influence: An individual is attacking a will based on undue influence claims that the will does not reflect the testator’s true intent. They will likely argue that the will substitutes the beneficiary’s wishes for those of a decedent susceptible to the beneficiary’s influence. Not all influence with a decedent is undue. Influence is not undue unless it overcomes the decedent’s free will.
Fraudulent or Forged Will: A will resulting from fraud is invalid. A finding of fraud requires a showing that a decedent has been willfully deceived as to (i) the character or content of an instrument, (ii) facts that induce the will or (iii) facts material to a specific provision. For instance, if the decedent was misled into signing the will by being falsely informed that it was a different type of document, such as a real estate contract or into leaving nothing to a child falsely believing the child was dead or a long-term drug user, the will’s legitimacy can be validly challenged.
What happens if a Will is Successfully Contested?
There are several possible outcomes to a successful challenge. If the entire will is invalid, the decedent’s most recent valid will takes its place. If the decedent never executed a valid will, the estate’s assets will be distributed to the decedent’s heirs under the applicable intestacy laws. In cases where only parts of a will are deemed invalid, the court determines the distribution of the affected assets.
Speak to an Azrael Franz Attorney Regarding Will Contests
Litigating a will’s validity can be a complex and time-consuming process. The undertaking involves notice to all the persons designated in the challenged will as well as the decedent’s spouse, children and possibly others not named in the will. A surviving spouse, descendant or sibling of an unmarried decedent with no living descendant having reason to question the legitimacy of a will should promptly seek guidance from an experienced lawyer to help ensure that a timely and informed decision is made on whether to contest the will.
The estate planning and litigation attorneys at Azrael Franz are experienced in preparing and contesting wills and can advise you on and represent you in a will contest. If you have questions about a will or reasons to contest a will, please contact us today.