With such a large transfer of wealth passing from the current generation than ever before, it is not hard to imagine that litigation can occur at the passing of a loved one if a beneficiary is left out of the will. A will contest is defined as a formal objection raised against the validity of a will, based on the contention that the will does not reflect the actual intent of the testator (the party who made the will). Will contests generally focus on the assertion that the testator lacked testamentary (mental) capacity, was operating under an insane delusion, or was subject to undue influence, or fraud or duress. A will may be challenged in its entirety, or only in part.
In order to file an objection against a will a person or party must have standing. Typically, standing to contest the validity of a will is limited to two classes of persons: 1) those who are named on the face of the will (i.e. any beneficiary); 2) those who would inherit from the testator if the will was invalid.
If an heir is unhappy with the amount they received or didn’t receive under a will, he may contest the will. It may be impossible to prevent heirs from fighting over your will entirely, but there are steps you can take to try to minimize squabbles and ensure your intentions are carried out. The following are some steps that may make a will contest less likely to succeed:
- Make sure your will is properly executed. The best way to do this is to have an experienced estate planning attorney assist you in drafting and executing the will. Wills need to be signed and witnessed by two independent parties and notarized and should include a self-proving affidavit.
- Explain your decision. If all the heirs understand the reasoning behind the decisions in your will, they may be less likely to contest the will. It is a good idea to talk to heirs at the time you draft the will and explain why someone is getting left out of the will or getting a reduced share. Although you should discuss it in person, always state the reason in the will. You may also want to include a letter with the will.
- Use no-contest clause. One of the most effective ways of preventing a challenge to your will is to include a no-contest clause in the will. However this will only work, if you are willing to leave something of value to the potentially disgruntled heir. A no-contest clause states that if an heir challenges the will and loses, then he or she will get nothing. Therefore, in order to be effective you must leave the heir enough so that a challenge is not worth the risk of losing the inheritance.
- Remove the appearance of undue influence. The most common method of challenging a will is to argue someone exerted undue influence over the deceased family member. For example, if you are planning on leaving everything to your son who is also your primary caregiver, your other children may argue your son took advantage of her position to influence you. To avoid the appearance of undue influence, do not involve any family members who are inheriting under your will in drafting your will. Family members should not be present when you discuss the will with your attorney or when you sign it. To be totally safe, family members shouldn’t even drive you to the attorney.
- Prove competency. One common way of challenging a will is to argue the Testator was not mentally competent at the time he or she signed the will. Pennsylvania requires that you be over 18 years of age and be of sound mind. One type of mental incapacity is insane delusion which Courts have defined as a “fixed false belief without hypothesis, having no foundation in reality. You can try to avoid this by making sure the attorney drafting the will tests you for competency. The attorney may ask you a series of questions to ensure the Testator understands (a) the amount and nature of his or her property, (b) the heirs and loved ones who would ordinarily receive such property by his Will, and (c) how his Will disposes of such property. The attorney will record your answers to show you were competent when you signed your will. The attorney may also recommend you be tested by a doctor who will write a report indicating you were competent when you signed your will.
- Remove the appearance of undue influence. The most common method of challenging a will is to argue someone exerted undue influence over the deceased family member. For example, if you are planning on leaving everything to your son who is also your primary caregiver, your other children may argue your son took advantage of his position to influence you. To avoid the appearance of undue influence, do not involve any family members who are inheriting under your will in drafting your will. Family members should not be present when you discuss the will with your attorney or when you sign it. To be totally safe, family members shouldn’t even drive you to the attorney.
- Remove the appearance of fraud. A less common method of challenging a will is for an heir to argue that the Testator was fraudulently induced into signing his or her will. Fraud can occur if the Testator signed a will without realizing it was a will. It could also happen if someone gave the Testator misinformation that caused him or her to change the distribution in the will. It is very hard to prove but it happens.
- Remove the appearance of duress. Duress involves some threat of physical harm or coercion on the testator by the perpetrator which caused the signing of the Will not to be voluntary. To avoid this the Testator should be by themselves when they meet with their attorney to draft and sign the will with no beneficiaries present.
Please contact Gregory Spadea at 610-521-0604 if you would like your will reviewed to ensure the likelihood of it being contested is reduced.