Losing a loved one is hard enough. All too often, on top of reeling from a tragic loss, the grief-stricken are also hurt and confused when they are left to wonder why they weren’t fairly included in the will – or worse, wholly omitted. Too often, the will reflects the desires of someone other than the decedent.
If there’s a glaring problem with a will, and you wish to contest it, here’s what you should know.
When to Contest
It’s essential first to understand when contesting is appropriate. Typically, the right to contest a will, legally known as standing, exists when:
- You or your minor child were a named beneficiary in a prior last will and testament, and are no longer included,
- You or your minor child are named as a beneficiary in a more recent will, or
- In the absence of a will, also known as an intestate estate, you would be an heir under intestacy law as a relative and would inherit a larger portion of the decedent’s estate.
Legal Grounds to Contest
If you have legal standing, an effective will contest also requires a reason, or grounds, for challenging the provisions of the will. Dissatisfaction on the part of the beneficiary is not sufficient grounds alone, nor is breaking a verbal promise. Instead, the true intentions of the person who died must be proven.
If the testator, or the person who signed the document as their last will and testament, was not of sound mind, a beneficiary can contest the will under the theory that the testator lacked of testamentary capacity. When someone cannot comprehend the value of their belongings and who the heirs should be, they may not have had the required capacity to execute the will in question. Again, the alleged incompetency must be proven by clear and convincing evidence and this is the highest burden of proof applied in civil cases.
Other grounds for an effective will contest include forgery, fraud, or undue influence. If someone was forced to create the document under duress, was deceived into signing, or had their signature falsified, then grounds may exist to contest. You may have a winning case if it can be proven that a last-minute change was made under the undue influence of someone else.
More Factors to Consider
Additional factors to consider are: whether the will presented to the Court is the most recent document signed by the testator, the specific requirements set forth by the testator’s resident state and whether the will was properly executed, and the statute of limitations or deadline to file a petition notifying the estate and the court that the will is being challenged.
In Pennsylvania, for a will to be valid:
- Testator must be at least 18 and mentally competent
- Testator must declare the document to be their will in the presence of two witnesses
- Two witnesses must sign the written document (oral is not valid)
In most cases, the deadline to contest a will is one year from the date of probate.
Challenging a will is usually costly and time-consuming, so it’s essential first to determine whether pursuing legal action is worthwhile. Contact a lawyer to discuss your situation and determine whether you have a strong case. Effective advocacy by your attorney will be instrumental in securing your rightful inheritance.
Mette, Evans & Woodside is proud to provide reliable resources for when life inevitably gets complicated. Our team of experienced attorneys is well-versed in understanding unique circumstances to expertly pursue contesting a will, along with other family estate matters.