A family that is grieving the loss of a loved one is likely to go through an extremely emotionally, legally, and financially difficult period of time. This mental stress could cause a person to act out of character, and say and do things they wouldn’t under normal circumstances. This could be especially true if they find out that they were disinherited from their loved one’s estate, or simply will not inherit what they thought they were entitled to. Disputes over wills are very common and can become a veritable legal mess if they proceed all the way to court.
In order to resolve estate disputes like these, no matter which side of a will contest you find yourself on, you’ll need the aid of a supremely skilled attorney who has experience with these scenarios. In this blog, we’ll be discussing will contests in detail, including why they happen and how they can be resolved.
Only an “interested party” can contest a will – in other words, someone who stands to profit financially if a judge rules in their favor. If the following three questions are unable to be answered conclusively, the will may be vulnerable to a contest:
- Is the will legally valid?
- Does the will express the true intent and wishes of its creator?
- What is the correct interpretation of the terms in the will?
Without these answers, it may be alleged that:
The will was not properly executed.
There is a certain protocol that must be followed when signing a will in the state of Pennsylvania to ensure its validity. First, the maker of the will (called the testator) must be over the age of 18; second, they must be of “sound mind” (which will be further explained later); and third, the document must be a hard copy (i.e., no audio recordings, video footage, or other digital files will be recognized by a judge). Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania does recognize holographic wills, or those that are handwritten.
While there is no requirement for wills to be witnessed (unless the creator cannot sign the will themselves or can only sign with a mark), many people choose to invite witnesses as an added layer of protection to the legality of the will. If at least 2 witnesses were present when the will was signed, then it is likely “self-proving,” meaning any potential contests will quickly lose traction within the legal system.
Essentially, any doubts that the will was executed according to Pennsylvania laws could lead to a contest.
There was a lack of testamentary capacity.
This is one of the most common reasons behind will contests, and it has to do with the mental competence, knowledge, and awareness of the creator. As previously discussed, Pennsylvania requires a person to be of “sound mind” when they sign their will. If they did not have a solid grasp of the property they owned, the relatives they had, the relationship they had with their beneficiaries, or what the will said and meant, then their will may be challenged on this basis. There are many reasons why a person may lack testamentary capacity, such as diseases such as dementia or Alzheimers, a traumatic injury, powerful medications, and more.
There are multiple wills.
In Pennsylvania, wills can be revoked or changed at any time. They are considered revoked if the creator burns, tears, canceling, obliterates, or destroys it; orders another person to burn, tear, cancel, obliterate, or destroy it in front of them and two other witnesses; or makes another will that revokes the old one. Wills can be changed by adding an amendment, which is called a codicil. However, in the event that a will is not revoked or changed properly, it’s possible that there could be multiple wills, which unfortunately make the will likely to be contested.
There is evidence of fraud or undue influence.
Undue influence refers to a person close to the will creator – such as a family member, friend, professional advisor, hired caregiver, service provider, or other individual – who influences or pressures them to act on their will in a way that they would not have without this individual’s oversight. Fraud, on the other hand, refers to the will’s signature having been forged or the testator having been given false or misleading information about the terms, document, beneficiaries, or other integral facts. Both scenarios leave a will vulnerable to be challenged.
How Are Will Contests Resolved?
A person who wishes to contest a loved one’s will on one of the above mentioned grounds will need to secure exceptional legal representation from a probate attorney. A formal petition must be filed through the court to begin the process. Next, notices must be sent to interested parties like heroes, beneficiaries, and personal representatives, alerting them that the will is being challenged.
Pervasive evidence must be present and gathered to prove that the will is not legally valid, which may lead to further actions such as depositions, interrogations, document requests, and witness testimony. It may be possible to resolve the contest through mediation or a settlement in some cases, but if not, the case will proceed to trial where a judge will make the final ruling.
Contesting a will is a hefty legal undertaking, so it is crucial that you first meet with an attorney to discuss the likelihood of your case’s success. It is also worth noting that there is a statute of limitations in contesting a will. The timing of your contest will depend on whether or not the estate has entered probate yet, and you have one year after the decision to file your appeal. Failure to do so within that time period will result in your claim being dismissed by the court.
Call Daly Law Offices To Learn More
If you feel strongly that you have sufficient evidence to challenge your relative’s will, or if you need to fight against your relative’s will contest, trust our lead attorney, Joshua N. Daly, to advocate on your behalf. He will work personally with you as he investigates your claims, determines your best options, and guides you through each step of the process. Call today to schedule your free consultation and discover how our practical solutions can put you in the best position for success!