The short answer to our title question today is yes, you absolutely can challenge a questionable will—with the help of an experienced probate and estates lawyer who fully understands how to contest a will, that is.
But should you challenge your loved one’s will? That is the bigger question. And today’s blog post focuses on when you might consider initiating a will contest—and how to go about it the right way.
Contesting a Will is Never Easy
Realize that contesting a will may cause a rift in your family and others involved with the estate in question. It will also be up to you to provide detailed information to the probate/orphans’ court (via your lawyer) as evidence to support any claims you’re making in the will contest.
Proving that your loved one’s will is invalid for any reason is often quite difficult—even with the help of an experienced attorney. You need to be prepared for the possibility that your challenge may not be successful.
However, if you firmly believe that something isn’t right with your loved one’s will—or that estate administration is being mishandled—you need to seek advice from a knowledgeable probate and estates attorney right away. Probate litigation can be emotionally fraught and time-consuming, but it can also right undue wrongs against your late loved one.
Some of the Biggest Reasons to Contest a Will
While you cannot successfully challenge a will just because you do not like its terms, it is likely time to talk with a lawyer if any of the following statements apply to you or the situation with the will and estate.
You feel you were unjustly cut out of the will.
The critical term in this reason to contest a well is “unjustly.” If you know that your loved one had wanted to include you as an heir to his or her estate, but you have somehow been left out, it is often worth investigating how or why you’ve been omitted from the will. Going about that investigation on your own, unfortunately, will not help you. Gather any evidence you can and contact a lawyer who can assist you with probate litigation.
There is more than one will.
While this situation can sometimes point to fraud, the existence of more than one last will is more often due to a simple clerical oversight or even an intentional estate planning move on the part of your loved one.
The issue of multiple wills—that are often quite different from one another—can happen when the will writer drafted a new document later in life but didn’t properly cancel the previous version.
Additionally, multiple wills may have been drafted in an attempt to make tax issues or the transfer of numerous properties in different states “easier.” Unfortunately, the latter scenario often makes probate much more complicated and introduces unintended consequences for beneficiaries and executors.
Language in the will is unclear.
If your loved one’s will is not self-proving—meaning its signing wasn’t notarized and properly witnessed—it is much more likely that it contains ambiguous language. In Pennsylvania, there is no law stating that a will must be notarized or even witnessed when it is signed, but individuals who choose to skip making their will self-proving should fully expect it to be contested.
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How to Challenge a Will in PA
There’s really only one step to take when you believe that your loved one’s will isn’t valid or that an executor is not adequately fulfilling their fiduciary duty. That’s to speak with a lawyer—one knowledgeable about estates and probate, that is—to determine if you can indeed challenge the will.
Consult an Estate Lawyer
He or she will help you determine your standing to contest the will and ensure that the grounds for your challenge are sound. At least one of the following four problems with the last will must be proven for the will contest to move ahead.
1. The will was not signed in accordance with Pennsylvania law.
As we mentioned above, Pennsylvania does not require that a last will be self-proving or notarized. However, estate planning professionals always strongly suggest that will writers take this vital step. If the will in question is not self-proving and you are suspicious of any of its contents, challenging it may be your best course of action.
2. The will’s writer (testator) lacked the capacity to sign the will.
When a will is signed, the testator—the person writing the will—must have something called “testamentary capacity.” This means that the will’s writer needs to fully understand the statements they are making in the will, which can be thrown into question if the testator has a mental health issue or dementia.
3. The will’s writer was “unduly influenced.”
Undue influence sounds complicated, but it comes down to one big question in the context of a will contest. Did the alleged influencer exert such extreme pressure and put the testator under such severe duress that it caused him to lose his free will and instead succumb to the will of the influencer? If you suspect that someone else—even the testator’s power of attorney designee—exerted such influence, you should consult a probate lawyer.
4. The will was fraudulently produced.
Are you afraid that the will in question was signed under fraudulent circumstances? While not particularly common, a testator may be tricked into signing a last will document that they believe is something else. Unfortunately, the testator cannot be asked what they thought they were signing, but any witnesses involved with the will can be questioned when fraud is suspected.
Need Help Contesting a Will?
May, May & Zimmerman is here to help people like you who feel they may have been unjustly excluded from a loved one’s will. But that’s not all. We’re also here to support estate administrators and executors through all aspects of probate, whether or not you’ve run into issues with will contests or other difficulties.
Through our law firm’s unique Probate Rescue service, we can step in during any stage of the probate and estate administration process—whether or not you’ve already been working with another lawyer—to help untangle complicated issues that can delay the ultimate distribution of a decedent’s estate and unnecessarily consume valuable estate assets.
Our experienced probate and estates attorneys provide decades of trial experience along with one-on-one personal attention to help you obtain the best outcomes possible during estate administration. Get in touch with us today for your free initial phone assessment!
This blog is being published for educational purposes only as well as to provide general information and a basic understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By entering this site you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. This site should never be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.
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