When a loved one passes away, the last thing on your mind might be contesting their will or trust. However, in some situations, it may become necessary to challenge the validity of these documents. In this blog post, we will explore what are valid reasons to contest a will or trust, who has legal standing to do so, the process involved, strategies for preventing contests, and the costs and benefits of taking such action. Let’s delve into the intricacies of this complex and emotionally charged topic.
- Understand the legal grounds for contesting a will or trust, including lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.
- Consult an experienced estate planning attorney to understand your rights as a beneficiary, potential heir, creditor or other party with vested interest in the estate.
- Carefully consider financial costs and emotional implications before deciding whether to proceed with contesting a will or trust.
Understanding the Grounds for Contesting a Will or Trust
The law recognizes that not every will or trust is created under fair or legitimate circumstances. As such, there are several legal grounds that can be used to contest these estate planning documents. The most common reasons include lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, and fraud or forgery.
Understanding these grounds can help you decide if a will or trust should be contested, and reveal the appropriate steps to follow if you choose to challenge the document.
Lack of Testamentary Capacity
Testamentary capacity refers to the mental state required to create a valid will or trust. It is generally assumed that adults possess sufficient mental capacity to make decisions regarding their estate, but this may not always be the case. Contesting a will or trust on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity means demonstrating that the person creating the document did not have the necessary mental capacity at the time of signing.
Examples of testamentary incapacity include dementia, insanity, and intoxication. In such cases, the testimony of the decedent’s physicians, caregivers, and others who were close to them can provide valuable insight into their mental state at the time the document was created.
Bear in mind that the person contesting the will or trust on these grounds carries the burden of proof.
One time wh Law were hired to represent the family of one Mr. Hawthorne. He was an elderly recluse. In his final years, he grew close to his caregiver, Miss Betty. Shortly after his 90th birthday, he changed his will, leaving everything to her, much to the shock of his estranged family.
Upon Mr. Hawthorne’s passing, the family was outraged to discover they had been entirely disinherited. They recalled his recent episodes of confusion and believed he lacked the capacity to make such a drastic change to his will.
Determined to challenge the will, they hired our firm. It was argued that Mr. Hawthorne’s sudden and uncharacteristic change, combined with his declining mental health, pointed to a lack of testamentary capacity.
Through the litigation evidence of advanced dementia was uncovered.
The judge ruled in favor of the family, concluding that Mr. Hawthorne lacked the capacity to understand his actions when he amended his will. The assets were redistributed according to his previous will, and the family’s inheritance was secured.
Undue influence occurs when someone manipulates the testator’s free will in terms of estate distributions. This often involves exerting pressure or control over the person creating the will or trust, resulting in provisions that favor the influencer at the expense of others. Undue influence can be particularly applicable to elderly individuals who require extensive assistance with daily activities or those experiencing psychological afflictions.
When undue influence is suspected, it’s frequently argued that the testator didn’t have the mental capacity to create the will. To prove undue influence, one must provide evidence of manipulation or coercion, as well as the resulting changes in the will or trust that favor the influencer. This process can pose challenges, so consulting with a proficient trust and estate attorney to discuss the case details is advisable.
Another time, in the small town of Cabot, Arkansas, Mrs. Lillian Carter was known for her generous spirit. Lillian’s closest companion in her later years was her niece, Jenna, who lived with her after moving from out of state.
Lillian’s original will equally divided her assets among her three nephews and Jenna. However, just months before her passing, the will was drastically altered, leaving 90% of the estate to Jenna.
After Mrs. Carter’s death, the nephews were shocked by the new will and suspected foul play. They believed Jenna had unduly influenced their aunt, leveraging her position of trust to benefit disproportionately.
Determined to seek justice, the nephews hired wh Law. Wh Law dove deep into the case, unearthing evidence that Jenna had isolated Mrs. Carter from friends and family, painting a picture of dependence and manipulation.
In court, witnesses testified about Mrs. Carter’s increasing reliance on Jenna and her growing distance from others. The clincher was a letter from an old friend, expressing concern about Jenna’s influence.
The Arkansas court found that Jenna had indeed exerted undue influence over Mrs. Carter. The will was declared invalid, and the estate was divided as per her original intent.
Fraud and Forgery
Fraud and forgery are other grounds for contesting a will or trust. Fraud is defined as the intentional misrepresentation of important information to the testator for the purpose of securing some sort of gain through the will or trust. Forgery, on the other hand, involves the creation of a fake document or signature by someone other than the testator.
To contest a will or trust on the grounds of fraud or forgery, one must provide evidence that the document or signature is not genuine or that the testator was deceived or coerced into signing it. Given the requirement of gathering substantial proof to convince the court, this process can be difficult.
Regardless of the nature of the will or trust contest, the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney is indispensable for navigating the legal complexities of an estate plan.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, Mr. Paul was a respected entrepreneur. His two children, Alan and Lisa, expected to inherit his estate. However, upon Paul’s sudden death, a will surfaced, leaving everything to a previously unknown individual, Mark.
Alan and Lisa were stunned. They had last seen their father’s will five years ago, which had split the assets between them. They suspected the new will was fraudulent.
With the help of wh Law, they sought to contest the will. They found discrepancies: the signature didn’t match Paul’s usual signature, and the witnesses to the will were unfamiliar names.
Further investigation revealed that Mark was a recent business associate of Paul’s and one of the witnesses was found to be Mark’s distant cousin. A handwriting expert testified that Paul’s signature on the new will was likely forged.
In court, faced with mounting evidence, Mark faltered under cross-examination, contradicting his earlier statements about the will’s creation.
The Arkansas judge declared the will fraudulent. Mark was ordered to face legal consequences for his deception, and Paul’s original will was reinstated.
Identifying Who Can Contest a Will or Trust
Not just anyone can contest a will or trust. Only individuals with legal standing, meaning they are personally affected by the outcome of the case, are allowed to challenge these documents. Typically, those with a financial interest in the outcome, such as beneficiaries of a previous will or trust, are granted legal standing to contest a will or trust.
Identifying who possesses legal standing is key to deciding if a will or trust can be contested, and who can initiate the contest. In general, the following parties can contest a will or trust:
- Potential heirs
- Other parties with a vested interest in the estate
Consulting with a seasoned estate planning attorney to determine your legal standing for challenging a will or trust and navigate the probate process’s intricacies is advisable.
Beneficiaries and Potential Heirs
Beneficiaries are individuals specified in a legal document, such as a will or trust, to receive assets or property after the passing of the document’s creator. Potential heirs, on the other hand, are those who may be legally entitled to inherit assets in the absence of a valid will or trust.
Both beneficiaries and potential heirs have the right to challenge a will or trust if they believe the document is invalid or their rights have been infringed upon. This can include contesting the legitimacy of the document, objecting to the division of assets, or claiming the document was created under undue influence or deception.
Creditors and Other Parties
Creditors and other parties, such as banks, financial institutions, or businesses that have provided goods or services on credit, may also contest a will or trust if they believe their interests are not being sufficiently represented or safeguarded.
For instance, a creditor may contest a will or trust if they believe the decedent’s assets are not being allocated in a manner that will enable them to be repaid.
Anyone contemplating contesting a will or trust should seek advice from a knowledgeable estate planning attorney to ascertain their legal standing and the most suitable course of action.
Navigating the Process of Contesting a Will or Trust
The complex legal process of contesting a will or trust calls for meticulous consideration and planning. It’s vital to involve a seasoned estate planning attorney who can guide you through the probate process’s nuances and advocate for your interests in court. The attorney can help evaluate the necessity of probate litigation and offer advice on the most appropriate strategy considering your unique circumstances.
The process of contesting a will or trust typically involves filing a petition in state probate court, notifying all relevant parties, and attending a hearing. The court will then evaluate the petition and render a verdict based on the evidence presented.
Comprehending the deadlines for filing a petition in state probate court is crucial, as they vary by state and have to be followed within a specific period following the testator’s death.
Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney
Engaging a seasoned estate planning attorney is a critical move in contesting a will or trust. The attorney can offer invaluable advice and direction about the legal process of challenging a will or trust, while also ensuring compliance with all legal requirements.
They can also help you assess the potential success of your case and advise on the best course of action, taking into account the financial costs and emotional impact of contesting a will or trust.
Filing a Petition in State Probate Court
Filing a petition in state probate court is a necessary step in the probate process, especially when contesting a will or trust. This involves submitting the required documents to the court, notifying all relevant parties, and attending a hearing.
The court will then evaluate the petition and render a verdict based on the evidence presented. Comprehending the deadlines for filing a petition in state probate court is crucial, as they vary by state and have to be followed within a specific period following the testator’s death.
Preventing Will and Trust Contests
While contesting a will or trust can sometimes be necessary, there are strategies that can be employed to minimize the risk of such disputes arising in the first place. Taking steps to ensure that your final wishes are clearly expressed and legally enforceable can help prevent will and trust contests and the associated emotional and financial costs.
Two key strategies for preventing will and trust contests are the inclusion of no-contest provisions and proper execution and witnessing of the documents.
A no-contest provision is a clause in a will or trust that states that any beneficiary who challenges the document will forfeit some or all of their inheritance. This serves as a deterrent for potential will contests, as it can result in a loss of inheritance for the contesting party if their challenge is unsuccessful.
However, it is important to note that no-contest provisions may not always be enforceable, depending on the specific circumstances of the case and the laws of the state in which the will or trust is being probated.
Proper Execution and Witnessing
Guaranteeing a will or trust’s proper execution and witnessing is vital to avoid potential contests. This involves following the legal requirements for creating and signing a will or trust, such as having the document witnessed by disinterested parties who can confirm the testator’s mental capacity and free will.
In some cases, having a will, trust, or other estate planning documents executed on video can further demonstrate the testator’s sound mind and intentions at the time of signing, providing additional evidence to support the validity of the document.
Adopting these measures can lower the chances of your will or trust being contested and guarantee the honoring of your final wishes.
Evaluating the Costs and Benefits of Contesting a Will or Trust
Before opting to contest a will or trust, one must thoughtfully weigh the costs and benefits. Contesting a will or trust can be a complex and emotionally charged process, with financial costs such as attorney fees, court fees, and other related expenses. Additionally, the emotional impact of contesting a will or trust can be significant, as it often involves disputes among family members and can cause stress and anxiety.
On the other hand, there may be potential benefits to contesting a will or trust, such as securing a larger inheritance or ensuring a more equitable distribution of assets. Weighing these costs and benefits is a crucial step in determining whether contesting a will or trust is the right course of action for your specific situation. A consultation with a seasoned estate planning attorney can aid in evaluating your case’s potential success and offering guidance on the most suitable course of action.
The financial costs associated with contesting a will or trust can be significant, including:
- Attorney fees, typically ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of the case
- Court fees
- Expert witness fees, which can also add up depending on the specific circumstances of the case.
Before deciding to contest a will or trust, it’s crucial to thoughtfully consider these costs and seek advice from a seasoned estate planning attorney to help grasp the potential expenses involved.
The emotional impact of contesting a will or trust can be significant, as it often involves disputes among family members and can cause stress and anxiety. In many cases, the emotional toll of contesting a will or trust can outweigh the potential benefits, particularly if the outcome of the contest is uncertain.
Before deciding to proceed, it’s crucial to thoughtfully consider the emotional implications of contesting a will or trust and balance these against the potential benefits.
Contesting a will or trust is a complex and emotionally charged process, but in some cases, it may be necessary to ensure the fair distribution of a loved one’s assets. By understanding the valid reasons for contesting a will or trust, the legal standing required to do so, and the process involved, you can make informed decisions about whether to contest a will or trust and how best to navigate the legal processes involved. Remember to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to help guide you through this challenging time and ensure that your loved one’s final wishes are honored.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the legal grounds for contesting a will or trust?
The legal grounds for contesting a will or trust include lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraud, and forgery.
Who has legal standing to contest a will or trust?
Beneficiaries, potential heirs, creditors, and other parties with a vested interest in the estate can contest a will or trust.
What is the process for contesting a will or trust?
The process for contesting a will or trust involves engaging an estate planning attorney and submitting a petition in state probate court.
What are the associated costs and benefits of contesting a will or trust?
The costs and benefits of contesting a will or trust include financial costs such as attorney fees and court costs, emotional impact, and potential benefits such as securing a larger inheritance or ensuring a more equitable distribution of assets.
Can a will or trust be contested by just anyone?
No, only individuals with legal standing, meaning they are personally affected by the outcome of the case, can contest a will or trust.
What makes a trust null and void?
Trusts can be null and void if legal formalities were not followed, the trust was created or modified through forgery or fraud, the settlor was mistaken about any law or fact related to the instrument’s execution, or if the trust maker was not mentally competent when creating or modifying the trust.
Are trusts more difficult to challenge in court than wills?
It is generally more difficult to challenge a living trust in court than it is to contest a will, as living trusts allow for the grantor’s continued involvement in comparison to wills.
Which of the following could lead to a will contest?
Failure to follow state rules for will and trust signatures, such as signing without witnesses or omitting important text, could lead to a will contest.
What is an example of undue influence in a will?
An example of undue influence in a will is when a person who is suffering from illness, such as cancer, is influenced by another person to change their estate plan and leave all their assets to the influencer instead of their family.
Is a trust better than I will?
A trust may be a better estate planning option than a will, as assets can be distributed more quickly without the need for probate.