A will is a legal document that governs the way property is distributed upon a person’s death. As such, it is a very important instrument that has much authority regarding a person’s property, money, and other assets. Due to the weight and importance of such matters, it is not surprising that there may be debates or conflicts over what a will says.
These types of situations are referred to as “will contests.” These typically involve the recipients (the “beneficiaries”) having disputes over various terms in the wills. Contesting a will means challenging the authority or validity of a will and its provisions. This can often lead to a legal battle
Examples of will contests include:
- Disputes over which family member gets which property;
- Disputes over the amount of money distributed to a person;
- Conflicts regarding specific items, such as an heirloom;
- Conflicts as to whether a person is even entitled to receive an inheritance; and
- Various other disputes.
Most of the times, a person may contest a will if they feel they are being cheated out of their rightful inheritance, or if they feel that the distribution is unfair or not in line with the deceased person’s actual wishes.
What are the Legal Grounds for Contesting a Will?
There are various legal arguments or grounds one can rely on when contesting a will. These may vary by state law, but they typically include:
- Mistakes or Errors in the Will: This can sometimes be proven by other documents or writings from the deceased person that indicate their true wishes more clearly;
- Ambiguous Language in the Will: Language or terms that are not specific or clear in the will may lead to a contest;
- Mental Capacity: A common legal ground for challenging a will is arguing that the person creating the will (the “testator”) was not of sound mind when they wrote their will. This is actually quite common in cases where a person has become ill, or is no longer mentally competent to make decisions on their own;
- Fraud or Duress: A will may be contested if it was made under conditions involving fraud or deceit, or duress (i.e., threats of harm).
What is a No-Contest Clause in a Will?
A no-contest or anti-contest clause in a will states that any beneficiary who contests the will terms automatically forfeits their rights to receive any inheritance under the will. This effectively prevents most contests with regard to the will. However, there may be some exceptions to this under specific circumstances.
Two states, Florida and Indiance, do not allow no-contest clauses. The rest of the U.S. states recognize or allow no-contest clauses in a will, subject to local state limitations and provisions.
Who May Challenge a Will?
Not everyone can challenge a will; only a person who has “standing” can do so. A person who has standing to challenge a will is someone who is named in the will document itself (i.e. a beneficiary), or someone who would lose an inheritance under the will if it was deemed invalid.
Again, states may have slightly different rules regarding standing. So be sure to check with a local lawyer so you know whether you have standing under your state’s law.
How Do You Contest a Will and What is to be Gained from Contesting a Will?
In order to contest a will, you will usually have to make a filing with the court. This involves submitting various documents that touch upon your reasons for contesting a will. You will need to state the grounds for contesting the will (such as fraud, coercion, etc.). There may be filing deadlines associated with the will contest, so be sure to file in a timely manner if you believe you have a claim.
Contesting a will may seem like a hassle or an inconvenience, but it can create more favorable outcomes if there are indeed problems with the current will distribution. For instance, a person might miss out on inheritances that they are rightfully entitled to if they don’t contest the will.
How Can I Avoid a Will Contest?
Will contests often spring from poorly-written or poorly thought-out will documents. Thus, most will contests can be avoided through a properly written will document that is clear and specific. Avoiding vague language can go a long way in avoiding will contests.
Next, if your wishes regarding your property change throughout your lifetime (which they likely will), you may want to consider modifying your will to reflect your new property distribution wishes. This can also help avoid confusion over the will.
Lastly, hiring an attorney to help draft your will can also prevent many will contests. It can ensure your will is written clearly, and also under conditions that are free from duress and other disqualifying circumstances.
What Other Factors Can Determine a Will Challenge?
Another factor that can determine a will challenge is if there is a previous will document in existence. The existence of a previous document can make it confusing as to the testator’s actual intentions. If this is the case, courts may need to review other documents as well to help determine which will is valid and what the person’s intentions are.
Also, as mentioned, state laws can be very different when it comes to will contests and wills in general. You may need to consult with a lawyer in your area if you need help with the estate laws in your state.
What Kind of Lawyer Do I Need to Contest a Will?
Will contests can be complex, and must be done according to specific rules and requirements. If you are considering contesting a will, you may need to hire a trusts, wills, and estates lawyer near you. Your attorney can advise you of your rights and can direct you in terms of how to proceed with filing a contest.