Losing a loved one is painful, and it can be even more distressing to deal with all the legal troubles surrounding their estate. People may have concerns about the validity of their loved one’s last will, leading to interested parties contesting it during probate. Read on to learn about the grounds for challenging a will, its step-by-step process, and the importance of a probate lawyer.
Contesting A Will In Massachusetts
Challenging a will is a legal process where an individual contests the validity or fairness of a deceased person’s will. This may arise when there are suspicions of undue influence and claims of mental incapacity on the testator’s part.
The primary aim of contesting a will is to ensure that the final disposition of the deceased person’s assets accurately reflects their true intentions. This is an integral part of the probate process.
Probate is a process through which a deceased person’s assets and estate are administered. During this time, beneficiaries or heirs receive asset distributions as outlined in the will or as per state laws if there is no will. The process typically involves court supervision to ensure that the deceased’s wishes are carried out.
Furthermore, probate ensures the settlement of financial obligations, such as taxes and debts, before transferring assets to their intended recipients. During this process, conflicts emerge, leading to discrepancies that prompt one to consider contesting a will.
Grounds For Contesting A Will
Before challenging a will, you must identify the legal grounds on which you intend to do it. Below are several common reasons.
Lack Of Testamentary Capacity
Lack of testamentary capacity refers to the mental state of the testator, the creator of the will, when creating the document. To challenge a will on these grounds, you must exhibit that the testator didn’t have the mental ability to understand the following fully.
- The nature and extent of their assets.
- The identities of their beneficiaries.
- The consequences of distributing their estate through the will.
This could be due to factors such as dementia, mental illness, or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of will creation.
Undue influence claims that an individual exerted control over the testator, influencing them to change their will against their true wishes. You must show concrete evidence that the influencer’s actions changed the testator’s will, making it different from what they would have chosen otherwise.
Forgery Or Fraud
If you have evidence that the will was forged or created under fraudulent circumstances, you can challenge its validity. This evidence may include witness statements, handwriting analysis, or expert testimony. It may also be any documentation that suggests irregularities in the will’s creation or execution.
When contesting a will on the grounds of forgery or fraud, it is crucial to outline the specific reasons for the challenge. This may involve presenting evidence that the deceased was coerced into signing the will, that someone impersonated them, or that their signature was forged.
Wills must meet certain requirements to be valid. You can contest it because of improper execution. It may be because the document was not properly signed, witnessed, or executed according to state laws.
Revocation & Mistake
You can challenge a will if you have evidence that the testator revoked it or created a new document after the one in question. Meanwhile, contesting a will on the grounds of a mistake means you believe some errors or ambiguities must be corrected.
Contesting can be complex as it may include various parties aiming to protect their interests or claim a share of the estate. Therefore, understanding who can challenge a will is crucial in this legal domain.
Individuals Who May Contest A Will
In Massachusetts, the law recognizes that individuals may have reasons to challenge the validity of a will. The right to contest a will allows interested parties to question its authenticity, legality, or the circumstances under which it was created. These parties may include heirs and beneficiaries, prior-will beneficiaries, and omitted individuals.
Heirs & Beneficiaries
This refers to individuals who would inherit from the deceased’s estate if the will were deemed invalid. Heirs and beneficiaries have a direct financial stake in the outcome. They may challenge the will if they believe it does not accurately reflect the deceased’s intentions.
Prior Will Beneficiaries
These individuals were named as beneficiaries in a previous version of the will but were excluded or received reduced benefits in the current will. They must demonstrate that the new document was created under suspicious circumstances or that the deceased lacked testamentary capacity when making it.
Individuals Intentionally Omitted
In some cases, a person may be intentionally omitted from a will due to oversight or intentional exclusion. These individuals, who would have been entitled to inherit if not for the omission, may contest the will. However, they must prove their exclusion was a mistake.
How To Contest A Will
Once you’ve identified the grounds for contesting a will, you must gather evidence and documentation to support your claim. While doing it is not a decision to be taken lightly, it is a legitimate legal recourse to ensure that the deceased’s final wishes are executed justly. With this, take note of this guide in challenging a will.
Consult With An Attorney
It is essential to seek help and guidance from an experienced probate attorney when you challenge a will. They can assist you in assessing the strength of your case, gathering the requirements, and navigating the court system effectively.
During your initial consultation, be prepared to provide them with all the evidence and documentation you’ve gathered. This may include medical records, witness statements, financial documents, or other relevant proof to help establish your claim. They will look at your case and advise you on how to proceed.
Review The Time Limits
Each jurisdiction has specific time limits within which a will can be contested. A contest can be filed within three years from the date of the testator’s death or 12 months from the informal allowance of the will, whichever occurs later. Knowing these deadlines is crucial to filing your petition within the required timeframe. Failure to meet the deadline may result in the dismissal of your case.
File A Petition To Contest The Will
To challenge a will officially, you must file a petition with the appropriate court. Your lawyer can help you in drafting this document, outlining the grounds for contesting it with all relevant evidence.
Once the petition is filed, the court will set a date for a hearing with all the parties involved, including beneficiaries named in the will. You must serve notice to all interested parties, such as executors, beneficiaries, other potential heirs, and creditors. This ensures that all relevant individuals know of the proceedings and have the opportunity to respond.
Mediation Or Settlement
In some cases, before proceeding to a court trial, parties involved in a will contest may opt for mediation or attempt to settle. During this process, a neutral third party assists disputing parties in finding a resolution.
Settling out of court can be a more efficient and less emotionally taxing way to resolve the dispute. However, it’s essential to consult with your attorney before agreeing to any settlement to ensure it’s fair and in your best interest.
Attend The Court Hearing
If mediation or settlement negotiations do not lead to a resolution, the case will proceed to a court hearing. During this time, both parties will present their arguments, witnesses, and evidence. Your attorney works on your behalf to demonstrate why the will should be invalidated or modified based on the grounds you’ve identified.
Wait For The Decision Of The Court
After the court hearing, the judge evaluates the evidence and arguments and decides. This decision will determine whether the will is valid or not. It’s important to be prepared for the possibility that the court may uphold the will as originally written. Once the court has made its decision, it is legally binding.
Appeal If Necessary
If you are dissatisfied with the court’s decision, you can appeal the ruling. Appeals can be lengthy and costly, so it’s crucial to discuss the potential outcomes and costs with your probate attorney before pursuing this option.
Distribution Of Assets
Once the court has decided, the probate process can continue. If the will is invalidated or modified, the court determines how the deceased person’s assets should be distributed. This may involve following a previous valid will, default state laws for intestacy if there is no valid will, or a modified version of the contested will.
It’s essential to consult with an attorney experienced in probate and estate law. They can determine whether you have valid grounds for challenging a will and guide you through the legal process.
Contesting a will during probate is a complex process that requires careful preparation and research. The challenger must prove that the document is invalid or that the deceased would have been likely to make another will. Probate courts consider various factors when assessing a will’s validity. This includes lack of capacity, undue influence, forgery and fraud, improper execution, revocation, and mistake.
It is important to consult with an experienced lawyer for probate to understand your rights and options. An attorney can help determine the chances of success and advise on the best course of action. They can also help you gather the necessary evidence and documents to support your claim and represent you in probate court.