Contesting a will is a significant decision, laden with emotional consequences and potentially complicated legal procedures. Wills dictate the distribution of a deceased person’s estate, often a reflection of their final wishes. However, there may be instances when you believe these wishes are unjust, incorrect, or manipulated, pushing you to the doorstep of a legal battle. 

In this piece, we aim to equip you with the necessary knowledge you should arm yourself with before deciding to challenge a will. Knowledge is power, and in a situation as sensitive as this, being well-informed is paramount.

Understand the Grounds to Challenge a Will

To successfully challenge a will, one must have legitimate grounds. Below are the most common reasons:

  • Lack of Testamentary Capacity: The testator (the person who made the will) did not understand the nature of the will and its effects, the extent of the property being disposed of, or did not fully comprehend and appreciate the claims to which they ought to give effect.
  • Undue Influence: The testator was coerced or manipulated into drafting the will in a certain way, against their genuine wishes.
  • Fraud or Forgery: The will is not an authentic document, or the testator was tricked into signing it.
  • Improper Execution: The will has not been executed according to the legal requirements. For example, it may lack the necessary signatures.
  • Revocation: The will was canceled by the testator before their death. This can occur if a more recent, valid will is found.

Research State Laws on Challenging Wills

Different states exhibit different guidelines and restrictions when it comes to challenging a will. Ensure you are well-versed in your state’s laws. Here are a few key points to consider:

  • Time Frame: Every state has its own time limit on when a will can be contested. Make sure you know the deadline in your state.
  • Eligibility: Some states allow only certain parties to challenge a will, such as beneficiaries or those who would have inherited it if not for the will.
  • Procedure: Different states may have different legal procedures to follow when contesting a will. Getting familiar with these can help you prepare better.
  • Validity of Grounds: The validity of the grounds on which you are challenging the will may vary from one state to another.

Get Professional Help from an Attorney

Challenging a will can be a complex and emotional process. Having a qualified attorney by your side can prove invaluable. Here’s why:

  • Expertise: An experienced attorney will have a thorough understanding of the laws and procedures involved in challenging a will.
  • Guidance: They can guide you through the process, explaining each step and helping you make informed decisions.
  • Representation: If the case goes to court, your attorney can represent you and argue on your behalf.
  • Documentation: Attorneys can assist in gathering necessary documents, evidence, and affidavits to support your claim.
  • Negotiation: If there is a possibility of settling the dispute outside of court, an attorney can help negotiate terms that are acceptable to all parties involved.

Determine Whether You Have Legal Standing to Challenge the Will

  • Beneficiaries: If you are a named beneficiary in the will, you have legal standing to challenge it.
  • Intestate Heirs: If you would have inherited, or stood a better chance of inheriting, if the deceased had died without a will (intestate), you may have the standing to contest the will.
  • Creditor: In some jurisdictions, creditors of the deceased may also have legal standing to challenge a will.
  • Spouse or Child Not Named: In certain jurisdictions, if you are a spouse or a child of the deceased and you have not been named in the will, you might have the standing to challenge the will.
  • Named on a Previous Will: If you were a beneficiary in a previous will, you might have legal standing to challenge the current will.

Be Aware of the Time Restrictions for Filing a Challenge

The time within which you must challenge a will is typically constrained by what is known as a “statute of limitations.” This time limit varies by state, with some allowing a window of several months to a year from the date of death or the date of probate court approval of the will. Failure to file a challenge within this specified period may result in a loss of any rights to contest the will. 

It is therefore essential to act promptly if you believe you have grounds to challenge a will. Consulting with a professional attorney as soon as possible can help ensure the timely filing of a challenge and prevent potential legal complications.

Gather Evidence That Supports Your Case

Collecting substantial evidence is crucial when it comes to challenging a will. Your claim’s success will largely depend on the strength of the evidence you present. Here are a few types of evidence to consider:

  • Documents: Old wills, drafts of wills, or any written material that might suggest the testator’s intentions can be valuable evidence. This might include letters, diaries, notes, or even emails and text messages.
  • Testimonies: Statements from individuals who knew the testator well or were involved in the creation of the will can be crucial. These individuals might include family members, friends, lawyers, or medical professionals who can testify about the testator’s mental state at the time the will was executed.
  • Medical Records: If you’re challenging the will based on the testator’s lack of testamentary capacity, their medical records can provide crucial evidence.
  • Expert Witnesses: You might need expert witnesses, such as psychologists or handwriting experts, to testify on specific issues, such as the testator’s mental capacity or the authenticity of their signature.
  • Circumstantial Evidence: Other circumstantial evidence that might help establish your case could include sudden, unexplained changes in a will or a beneficiary who seems to have exerted undue influence over the testator.

Remember, it’s essential to consult with an attorney to ensure you’re gathering the right kind of evidence and storing and presenting it properly.

Be Prepared for Possible Court Proceedings and Legal Fees Associated with Them

Challenging a will often leads to court proceedings, which can be lengthy, emotionally draining, and costly. Be prepared for the possibility of a trial, as the court will hear evidence and determine the validity of your claim. Legal fees can mount up quickly, as they include not only your attorney’s time but also the costs of gathering evidence, calling expert witnesses, and court filing fees. Most attorneys charge by the hour for estate disputes, so the total cost can be difficult to predict upfront. 

Some lawyers might agree to a contingency fee arrangement, where they receive a percentage of the inheritance you receive if your challenge is successful. However, this arrangement isn’t allowed in all jurisdictions.

Keep in mind that if you lose the case, you might be ordered to pay the other side’s legal costs. Moreover, challenging a will can strain family relationships, especially if your relatives do not agree with your decision to contest. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider all these factors and discuss them with your attorney before choosing to challenge a will.

About‌ ‌Wotitzky Law Firm

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