It is generally assumed that a last will and testament is the last word concerning an individual’s estate plan. But this is not always the case. Following the testator’s death, evidence may emerge that indicates the will bearing his or her name is inaccurate, invalid, or even fraudulent. Challenging a will is no simple task, but it may be necessary to ensure beneficiaries’ and creditors’ rights are protected and that the testator’s final wishes are ultimately effectuated. The seasoned Estates & Trusts attorneys of SederLaw are ready to advise you as to your legal options and assist with your will challenge.
When And Why Will Challenges Arise
The testator is the individual who executes a last will and testament. Upon that individual’s death, the will must be submitted to a legal process known as probate. Probate is necessary to authenticate the will and therefore prove it is valid. Without this crucial step, estate assets cannot be properly identified and transferred to their intended beneficiaries. However, it is often during probate that objections to the will are made.
Beneficiaries, creditors, and others may object that the will being probated is somehow invalid. Will challenges usually arise as the result of questions such as:
- Why was there a last minute change to the will?
- Why were the terms of the will dramatically different from an earlier version of it?
- How come certain valuable assets are not even mentioned in the will?
- Aren’t there missing assets that could satisfy outstanding creditor claims against the estate?
- Is someone attempting to use this will to make a fraudulent claim against the estate?
Who Can Challenge A Will?
Anyone can question the validity of a will, but not everyone can formally challenge it in court. To challenge a will in Massachusetts, one must have standing. Standing, in general, means that someone has the right to bring a particular legal action. With respect to will challenges, the only individuals with standing are those who are considered “interested persons.” To be an interested person, one has to have a financial or legal stake in whether the will is valid. Examples of interested persons include:
- Beneficiaries of the will
- Legal heirs of the testator’s estate
- Beneficiaries under the terms of a previous or later will
- Estate creditors
What Are The Grounds To Challenge A Will?
Challenging a will requires much more than simply being unhappy with one’s inheritance. Even if you believe you should have inherited something, or inherited something else, you will need to allege specific grounds to invalidate the will. Those grounds may include:
- Undue influence. This term refers to a situation in which an individual exerted inappropriate pressure upon the testator, thereby affecting the terms of the will. Another way of describing this: the testator drafted or altered his or her will in a manner in which he or she would not have done otherwise but for the undue influence. Anyone can wield undue influence upon a testator, including family members, caregivers, and neighbors. A classic example of undue influence is someone suddenly befriending the testator near the end of his or her life and – not coincidentally – becoming a beneficiary of the estate.
- Lack of testamentary capacity. An individual must be of sound mind to be a testator. This means, for instance, understanding what he or she is doing and the effects of the last will and testament. Evidence of mental infirmity, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or a similar condition, will raise substantial questions as to whether the testator lacked capacity at the time he or she executed the will.
- Fraud. Fraud comes in different forms. It could mean a forged signature, an actual page of the will swapped out for a fake one, or even a fraudulent notary seal. Sometimes fraud occurs because a testator is lied to about the value or existence of an asset included in the will. Anything that constitutes a material misrepresentation or other evidence of fraud could render the will invalid.
- Improper execution. Wills must generally be in writing and signed by the testator and two witnesses. There are other formal requirements to make a will valid. If one of the required elements is lacking, this fact could invalidate the will.
Steps To Challenging A Will
If you believe you have sufficient grounds to challenge a will, the first step you should take is to gather any evidence you may have that something is wrong with the will. The exact grounds you wish to argue will largely dictate the evidence you will need. For example, if you contend that the testator lacked sufficient capacity to execute the will, you will probably need evidence that the testator suffered from a mental condition such as dementia.
To bring a challenge, you will have to file a petition in the court overseeing the probate of the will. The petition will state the grounds for your challenge and provide evidence to substantiate your claims. A hearing will be held in which you will have the opportunity to make your case. Usually, expert witness testimony will be necessary. Using the above example, an expert witness can explain the medical evidence that supports your argument that the testator lacked capacity.
Anyone defending the validity of the will has the chance to be heard as well, and to dispute your evidence. Having an experienced estate litigation attorney will be critical to making and defending your will challenge. That’s where SederLaw comes in. Our experienced Estates & Trusts lawyers can handle your will challenge from start to finish. We can also defend the validity of a will against someone attempting to contest it.
Contact Our Worcester Will Challenges Attorney
What ultimately becomes of a last will and testament will have a lasting impact on beneficiaries, creditors, and the testator’s estate. If you are an interested person and believe a will is somehow defective, or you need to defend a will from a challenge, contact SederLaw today.