Ideally, a last will and testament will accurately represent the final wishes of the testator (that is, the individual who executes the will). But in some cases, there is evidence that suggests the will is invalid. Where there is reason to suspect the legitimacy of a will, there is a possibility that someone can challenge – or contest – that document. Contesting a will requires more than simply disagreeing with its contents or not being happy with your inheritance. The Estates & Trusts attorneys of SederLaw are here to guide you.
When someone dies and leaves behind a will dispensing with their estate, the first step that must be taken is to probate the will. Probate ensures that assets are correctly identified and transferred to their intended heirs, that legitimate estate creditors have a chance to make their claims, and that taxes are paid. Before any of this can be done, however, the will must be authenticated. This is where a will contest typically arises.
How to Contest a Will
To contest a last will and testament, an individual must first have standing to do so. Standing is a legal term meaning that one has the right to bring legal action. In this case, it refers to what probate law considers an “interested person.” This is an individual who has a financial or legal interest in the ultimate outcome (namely, whether the will is validated or not). In Massachusetts, an interested person includes:
- Beneficiaries of the will
- Legal heirs of the testator’s estate
- Beneficiaries under the terms of a previous or later will
- Estate creditors
Assuming a party has met the above qualifications, the next step is to allege sufficient legal grounds to challenge the will. You may believe that you should have inherited something from the estate, or inherited something other than what you did. However, you need more than this to contest the will in Massachusetts.
Common Grounds to Contest a Will
These are a few grounds that can support your claim:
Undue influence. This means an individual exerted inappropriate pressure upon the testator, causing him or her to draft or alter the will in a way they would not have otherwise. Family members can wield undue influence upon a testator, but so can someone who suddenly comes into the testator’s life in his or her final days, like a neighbor or caregiver.
Lack of capacity. To draft a will, an individual must be of sound mind. That requires an understanding of what he or she is doing and the effects thereof. Wills are often made or changed when testators are of advanced age or are sick. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other conditions can cause the testator to lack the necessary capacity to draft or alter the will.
Fraud. Evidence of fraud could be a forged or suspicious-looking signature. It might also be that the testator was lied to about the value or existence of an asset, or anything else which improperly influenced the terms of the will. Any material misrepresentation or other evidence of fraud could be enough to invalidate the will.
Improper execution. A will must be properly witnessed, notarized, and signed. Failure to abide by these and other formalities may support a will contest.
If the above elements are met, a petition can be filed to formally contest the will. The parties challenging the document will be able to present their case in court and, if needed, bring in expert witnesses to support their claims. Having an experienced probate attorney is essential to successfully contesting the will – or, if you are defending its validity, to rebuffing a challenge. Contact SederLaw today to learn more.