Suppose you have a loved one who has passed, and all of a sudden there is a brand-new last will and testament that either greatly reduces your share or leaves you out completely. What do you do?
A Common Scenario for Contesting a Last Will and Testament
Here’s an example of a common situation. As an only child, Katie enjoyed a great family life with her loving parents. Sadly, Katie’s mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and passed away. Years went by, and Katie’s dad got remarried. By this time, Katie was a young adult, living on her own. She didn’t really get to know her new stepmother and younger stepsister, who moved in with her dad. A year later, Katie’s father was in a serious car accident. He eventually slipped into a coma and died.
Katie had assumed that she would inherit most of her father’s estate. However, she was shocked to discover that a new last will and testament left her with only 25%, and the rest to her stepfamily. Katie suspected that her stepmother had forged her dad’s signature on the new will while her dad was in the hospital. Katie was not going to let her stepmother “rob” her of her rightful inheritance. So, Katie decided to take legal action and contest the last will and testament.
How You Get Notified of a Last Will and Testament
When someone dies, the original will is “probated” and submitted to the Register of Wills office in the county where the decedent resided. When the original will is probated, both the new beneficiaries and all of the “intestate heirs” will receive notice of the new last will and testament.
Intestate heirs typically include the surviving spouse and the decedent’s children. If you are an intestate heir you will be notified of the opening of the estate. If you are not an intestate heir (i.e. more remote relative, stepchild, etc.), you may not receive notice that the Register of Wills is probating this new will.
Contesting a Will Now or Never
It is incumbent for you to challenge the last will and testament in a timely fashion. Otherwise, your right to contest the last will and testament will be waived (a most unfortunate circumstance). This means that if you do not file action to challenge the new will in a timely fashion—even if you did have the best case to overturn the last will and testament—then you will have forever lost the right to challenge the will.
Four Ways to Contest a Last Will and Testament
Once you are at the point where you believe the last will and testament is invalid (for example, the decedent was not competent to sign the document or there is no way he/she would sign this document), you need to understand that there are four basic methods to invalidate the last will and testament. Each of these are independent rights to challenge the last will and testament.
- The signature is fraudulent.
If the signature is a fraud, then typically we would need a handwriting expert to analyze the signature, along with a good number of signatures that we know are valid.
- The last will and testament was not executed properly.
For a last will and testament to be executed properly, the signature must be witnessed, and there must be two witnesses to this signature. Common issues are that the witnesses were not present when the signature was made or that someone else signed on the decedent’s behalf. Execution issues are common when the last will and testament was obtained online.
- The decedent was incompetent at the time it was signed.
- The decedent was subject to undue influence at the time it was signed.
If the decedent was incompetent or subject to undue influence, the path to invalidate the last will and testament is more complex. It’s important to have eyewitness observations of the decedent (i.e. the decedent did not drive, could not dress himself, often repeated sentences, forgot what was talked about 10 minutes later, made bizarre accusations of people stealing items, no longer cared about paying bills, etc.). Ultimately, however, we will need to obtain the medical records of the decedent.
In order to get the medical records of the decedent, a challenge to the last will and testament needs to occur. Once this process begins, a subpoena may be issued to the hospital, nursing home, assisted living facility, or physician’s office at issue. It is certainly important to know which place is at issue.
Once we get eyewitness testimony and receive the medical records, we have an expert review all of this information. The expert will verify if the information is sufficient to determine if the decedent was incompetent or subject to undue influence. Undue influence is a seven-factor test, with the most important factor being if the decedent was in a weakened physical or mental state. It is important to note that incompetency is a higher standard to meet than undue influence.
Even with the expert opinion, we need to convince the court that this evidence rises to the standard of incompetency or undue influence.
Attorneys Help Protect Your Loved One’s Intentions
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for someone who is in a weakened condition to be preyed upon by others who seek financial advantage. It is up to you to fight back to protect your loved one’s true intentions. We’re here to help you.