Grounds for Contesting a Will

A will is a legal instrument utilized to, among other things, establish the terms of distributing the assets of a decedent’s estate to his or her heirs. In some instances, an heir or beneficiary may be upset with the terms of the will or may think the will does not accurately reflect the true wishes of the decedent. This may lead to a will contest. 

A will contest is a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a decedent’s will. In order to contest a will, a person must have standing. This means that the person bringing the will contest action must be personally affected by the outcome of the case. So, in other words, the person contesting the will must either be an heir or beneficiary named in the decedent’s will, prior will, or set to potentially inherit under state intestacy laws. State intestacy laws apply when a person dies without a valid will in place.

Grounds for Contesting a Will

There are several grounds that may form the basis for contesting a will. These grounds include:

  • Required will formalities were not observed in establishing the will: A will must be signed and executed in accordance with the applicable state laws. For instance, the will must be signed by the testator before two witnesses who must also sign the will. If a will is not executed in accordance with state law, then a court may invalidate the will. A court does not have to, however. The court can still choose to enforce the terms of the will even if certain will formalities were not observed. 
  • The testator lacked the testamentary capacity to establish the will: Testamentary capacity refers to the testator’s ability to fully comprehend the nature and value of the assets in his or her estate. It also means that the testator understood how those assets would be distributed under the terms of the will. Simply put, the testator must understand the legal effect signing the will has. Without the capacity to understand this, a will is considered invalid. Lack of testamentary capacity can be demonstrated in a number of ways such as testimony from those who knew the testator at the time the will was created or medical records showing that the testator had Alzheimer’s or dementia.
  • The will or certain terms of the will were the product of undue influence: Undue influence occurs when such pressure is exerted on the testator that his or her will was essentially replaced by the individual or individuals who were exerting the pressure. Undue influence goes beyond nagging a person or even threatening a person. It is more than verbal abuse. It is extreme pressure placed on the testator that caused him or her to follow the wishes of another instead of his or her own wishes. In cases of undue influence, a court may choose to invalidate all of the will or just the will provision that was the result of the undue influence.
  • The will or certain terms of the will were the product of fraud: Fraud in the context of will creation means that the testator was essentially misled into creating a will in a certain way. Fraud could include such things as feeding the testator false information about other potential beneficiaries that would lead the testator to cut them out of the will. In light of fraud, a court may choose to invalidate the entire will or just the portion of the will that was the product of fraud.

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