Will Contests Under the Law
A will contest is a formal objection to a will’s validity because the will arguably does not match the testator’s intentions. To have standing to contest a will’s validity, the person challenging it must be either named in the will or have a direct pecuniary interest in the estate. The statute of limitations to contest a will varies by state and is typically between three months and two years. If the claim involves fraud, the statute of limitations often begins running on the date the fraud is discovered.
Common objections include that the testator was incompetent, that he or she was subject to an insane delusion, or that he or she was subject to undue influence, coercion, or fraud. A will contest may also assert that the will was improperly executed under the law. A person may challenge a portion of the will or the whole instrument. Contesters may attempt to prove the objection with either direct evidence in the form of eyewitnesses or circumstantial evidence, from which rational deductions may be drawn. The court ultimately decides whether an objection has merit.
For a will to be valid, the testator must have been competent at the time he or she signed the will. To be competent, the testator must have been at least 18 and must have had capacity. The capacity required for a will is lower than in other legal contexts, such as contract law. For the testator to have capacity, he or she must know the nature of the act, know the natural objects of his or her bounty, know the nature, extent, and value of his or her property, and understand the disposition. There is generally a rebuttable presumption that the testator had capacity, so the contesters bear the burden of proving incapacity. Generally, eyewitnesses to the will’s execution prove incapacity. Medical testimony oddly holds less weight than eyewitnesses, due to the unreliability of science.
Valid wills are the product of the testator’s free will and volition. When a testator’s perceptions are based on lies and deceptions, the resulting will is fraudulent and will be stricken.
An insane delusion interferes with the testator’s ability to devise a rational will. To prove an insane delusion, the contester must show that the testator insistently believed alleged facts that had no basis in reality and that the delusion had some impact on the testator’s disposition of the property. Only the portion of the will caused by the insane delusion fails, but the delusion may potentially affect the entire will. An insane delusion is separate from incapacity or mistake.
A will or portion of the will may be invalidated if the court finds it was the result of undue influence, which occurs when the testator’s desires are subverted for those of another. Undue influence is most commonly proven through circumstantial rather than direct evidence. Mere motive and opportunity are insufficient to prove undue influence. The contester typically must show that another person exerted his or her will on a vulnerable testator and that the influence produced a provision expressing the intent of the influencer rather than that of the testator.
In many states, a rebuttable presumption of undue influence arises when a confidential relationship existed between the testator and the devisee at the time the will was executed, the devisee played an active role in preparing the will, and the disposition under the will is different from what might naturally be expected. However, the initial burden is on the person contesting the will to show a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the testator and the beneficiary.
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