The period of time after a loved one passes away can be immensely emotional and stressful for a family. These emotions have the potential to make an individual act out in a way that’s out of character for them, especially if they find out that they will not inherit the amount of money or property they thought they would, or that they’ve been disinherited entirely. Estate disputes – especially will contests – are very common and can get incredibly complicated if they end up being litigated in court.
Whether you are an individual looking to contest your loved one’s will, or you are fighting a relative from doing so, it is imperative that you secure highly experienced and knowledgeable legal representation to help you navigate the complex process. In this blog, we’ll be discussing the most important information you should know about will contests, as well as how they are typically resolved.
When a person dies, their will is submitted to the court and their estate – all of the money, property, and possessions they owned – enters into probate. The deceased individual is referred to as the testator, while the person who submits the will following their death is called the will proponent, and is often the person who is also named as the estate executor. They have the burden of proving that the will is legally valid, unless an individual comes forth to challenge the validity and contest the will. At that point, the burden falls on the contestant to provide evidence to the contrary.
Not just any random person can challenge a will; only “interested parties” can. In Alabama, interested parties may include:
- Beneficiaries of the will
- Beneficiaries of a prior will
- Someone who would have inherited through intestacy laws, but do not under the terms of the will
- Creditors with a claim against the estate
Beneficiaries are not always family members; they could be friends or even charitable organizations.
There are also a limited number of conditions, or grounds, upon which a will may be contested.
Most Common Grounds For Will Contests
- The testator did not have testamentary capacity. This refers to the decedent’s mental state at the time they signed their will, and whether or not they had full knowledge of what they were signing and why. There are four questions that are typically used to determine whether or not there was a lack of testamentary capacity. They are:
- Did the testator understand the nature and consequences of creating the will?
- Did the testator know the extent and nature of their estate?
- Was the testator aware of the relationship between themselves and their proposed beneficiaries?
- Was the testator afflicted by any disorder of the mind or delusion?
Anyone who has knowledge that the testator did not, in fact, have testamentary capacity at the time it was signed, has grounds to contest the will. Unfortunately, many people wait until their loved one is sick or close to death before urging them to create a will, which leaves them vulnerable to contests.
- The testator was subjected to undue influence. If any person such as a family member, friend, professional advisor, hired caregiver, or other individual exerted their influence over the testator which led to their feeling pressured or forced to write the will in a way they may not have otherwise, the will is not valid. These situations often arise if the influencer was able to isolate the testator, prevent them from communicating with others, or only permit their communicating with individuals they allow. Influencers often use tactics such as sweet talk, bribes, lies, or threats.
- The will was not signed under the correct conditions. In Alabama, a last will and testament must be in writing and signed by the testator, or at their direction and in his or her presence. It must also be witnessed and signed by two other people who must either see the testator sign the document or witness them acknowledge their signature being put on the will. If these conditions were not met at the time the will was signed, then it may be vulnerable to a contest due to legal technicalities.
- There is evidence of fraud. If there is evidence that the testator was deceived or misled into signing a will that does not accurately reflect their wishes, then it may be contested on the grounds of fraud. In addition, if the testator’s signature was forged or they were convinced to sign it without knowing what the document was, then this may also be considered a fraudulent will, and therefore not legally valid.
- The testator attempted to disinherit their spouse. In Alabama, surviving spouses have a right to claim a share of their deceased spouse’s estate, even if they were not named in the will. Therefore, a disinherited spouse has grounds to contest the testator’s will.
- The will uses ambiguous or unclear language that could be interpreted in more than one way. If a will is contested for this reason, the court will work to determine the will’s intent, or how the testator intended the terms to be interpreted. An ambiguous will is especially vulnerable to challenges, as a will should be specific.
“No Contest” Clauses
Some wills include a “no-contest” clause, or in terrorum clause. These are intended to dissuade family members from bickering over inheritances by threatening anyone who challenges the will to be disinherited entirely. No-contest clauses make challenging the validity of a will much more complicated, but not impossible, as they are not always enforceable. The court will determine whether the contest is credible or frivolous before moving forward. If you plan to contest a will that includes a no-contest clause, it is especially crucial to seek an attorney who is seasoned in Alabama estate and probate laws.
How Will Contests Are Resolved
A petition to contest a will may be filed in probate court before the will has been admitted, or in circuit court if it has already been admitted to probate. There is a statute of limitations on challenging a will (6 months in most cases) so if you’re planning on doing so, you have a limited time to act. Will contests can take a significant amount of time to be resolved, from several months to even years. They are also extremely costly to the estate, as the legal fees required to litigate them in court are paid for out of the estate’s funds.
Once a petition to contest a will is submitted which clearly outlines the grounds for the contest, a notice must be sent to all interested parties, including heirs, beneficiaries, creditors, and personal representatives. Evidence must be gathered and presented in court which proves the invalidity of the will, and may require depositions, interrogations, document requests, witness testimony, and more. In some cases, a will contest may be able to be resolved through mediation or out of court through a settlement; if not, the case will proceed to a ruling by a judge.
Call The Ladd Firm To Learn More
Our capable attorneys have a combined 50+ years of experience and can step in to assist you no matter what side of a will contest you find yourself on. Contact our office to schedule your free initial phone consultation where you can get your questions answered and an honest appraisal of your circumstances. We look forward to working with you!