While still reeling from the grief of your parent’s passing, you are met with the unpleasant surprise that you have been left out of their will. The news comes as a genuine shock, and it is making you wonder about the success rate for contesting a will. Should you take that matter to court?
In this article, we will talk all about the process of contesting a will and the success rate of that particular legal maneuver. We will also discuss the different grounds for contesting a will and whether they apply to your case.
Continue below to learn more about this important legal matter.
What Does Contesting a Will Entail?
Before we get into more specific topics pertaining to contesting wills, let’s first take a moment to define what that legal action entails.
According to the Legal Information Institute, contesting a will is a probate proceeding where parties with a vested interest in a will dispute its legitimacy. The interested parties usually include the decedent’s relatives and close friends. In some cases, the petitioning party may also be the decedent’s caretaker.
When you take legal action to contest a will, you are essentially saying it is invalid for one reason or another. We will explain why a will could be deemed illegitimate later in this article.
A will dispute’s ultimate goal is to alter how the decedent’s assets are distributed. However, even a successful will dispute does not automatically mean the petitioner will gain the most in terms of assets. Instead, the court may adopt one of three potential dispute resolution methods.
Only Certain Parts of the Will Are Followed
The first possible outcome in a will dispute sees the court honoring only certain parts of the document. The presiding judge may find that specific segments of the document are indeed questionable based on the grounds highlighted by the petitioner. Because of that, the judge may decline to follow the terms outlined completely.
The court may uphold only the undisputed parts of the will to resolve the matter. They may then hear more arguments to decide how the rest of the decedent’s estate should be handled.
This is a complicated solution to the matter, but the judge may regard it as the fairest way to settle the dispute. Of course, there is still no guarantee that the petitioner will be pleased with the outcome this process generates.
An Old Will Is Reinstated
The court may also agree with the petitioner that the most recent version of the decedent’s will is invalid. After expressing their agreement with that sentiment, the court may move to honor an earlier version of the decedent’s will.
A petitioner may contest a will hoping for this exact outcome if they know the terms of the older will are kinder to them.
Intestate Succession Laws Take Effect
One more potential for a will dispute has the court throwing out the current will and adopting intestate succession laws instead. The court may opt for this outcome if the current will is deemed illegitimate and no older version can be adopted.
New York State’s intestate succession laws prioritize the decedent’s spouse and children. The decedent’s grandchildren may also be prioritized if their parents have passed. If the decedent had no spouse and children, the parents would become the heirs of their estate. Siblings are in line to receive the decedent’s assets after the parents.
Your other living relatives may also benefit from your estate. New York State will only assume ownership of your estate if it cannot contact any qualified heirs.
What Is the Typical Success Rate for Contesting a Will?
Upon learning about the contents of the will your parent left behind, you are convinced that something is wrong. The way the will is structured favors certain people too much and seems out of line with your parent’s priorities and values. That development seems suspect at best, and you want to see it investigated further.
So, is pushing forward with a motion to contest worth your time? Exact numbers regarding the success rate of will disputes are difficult to pinpoint. However, the most recent estimates indicate that the success rate hovers around 1%.
To put that number into better context, this article from the Nevada Law Journal notes that around 3% of all wills filed in the U.S. are subjected to disputes.
Both figures are not particularly high, but they are significant. They indicate that the outcome of contesting a will is not a foregone conclusion.
We should mention those numbers fail to clarify the reasons behind the disputes. They fail to capture the fact that a petitioner’s odds for successfully disputing a will increase if they have a strong leg to stand on.
What Are the Grounds for Contesting a Will?
The success of a will dispute depends mainly on the grounds on which it is brought. Do you have a valid reason for contesting a will, or are you troubling the court with a frivolous lawsuit? This section details the grounds often used for will disputes. Your petition is more likely to succeed if it cites one of the grounds highlighted in this section.
Many disputes that make it to court cite undue influence as their reasoning. What is undue influence in the context of contesting a will?
When using undue influence as the basis of their legal action, the petitioner argues that the testator did not complete the will according to their wishes. Instead, another party coerced them into creating a will that unfairly favored certain people.
You could argue this to the court if you believe a caretaker took advantage of your ailing parent. To bolster your argument, you may highlight changes in your parent’s behavior that only emerged after the caretaker started watching over them. One can also argue that the caretaker and your parent barely had enough time to form a bond, so the latter leaving them so many valuable assets is a highly questionable decision at best.
The real challenge is gathering enough evidence to make a claim based on undue influence. Odds are any coercion that did take place happened away from prying eyes. You must rely heavily on your loved one’s established pattern of behavior to succeed with this argument.
Lack of Capacity
A petitioner may also contest a will on the grounds that the testator was not of sound mind when they created or signed it.
For example, you can go to the court stating that your parent had dementia when they signed the will. Their caretaker knew that and took advantage of it to get a cut of the estate.
Initially, it may seem like contesting a will based on a lack of capacity would be easy, but that is often not the case. The issue here for petitioners is that many states have low standards for adequate mental capacity. As far as the state is concerned, a person is already of sound mind if they can grasp the concept of their assets and beneficiaries. The court may also state that a person had sufficient mental capacity if they understood what signing the will meant.
You must provide strong evidence that your loved one could no longer grasp those concepts when they signed the will to make this case. It is not an impossible case to make, but you will need detailed medical records to bolster it. Hopefully, your parent’s doctor can supply those documents.
The presence of fraud can also affect a petitioner’s success rate for contesting a will. Fraud can take on different forms when it comes to cases involving wills.
First, fraud may occur if the testator signs a will without knowing what it actually is. The person who asked them to sign the will may have misrepresented the document, claiming that it was a medical form of some kind. The court will likely accept your claim if you find evidence proving this deception occurred.
You can also argue that fraud occurred if the person who asked your parent to sign the will misrepresented its contents. This will be harder to prove, but you and your lawyer can investigate the signed documents and digital records to find evidence of fraud.
Errors With Signing, Witnessing, or Handling a Will
Lastly, wills may be contested if there are perceived errors stemming from how they were signed, witnessed, or handled.
Generally speaking, a will is valid in New York State if the testator who signed it was of sound mind and memory. The document must also be signed in front of two witnesses. The witnesses must be at least eighteen and cannot be related to the testator by blood or marriage.
If one of those conditions is not met, the will is vulnerable to a challenge. A petitioner can confidently move forward with a dispute because they know the law is on their side.
The way the will is handled could also affect its legitimacy. According to New York State, doing anything to the will may be reason enough to invalidate it. You can point to suspect handling as the reason the court should not honor the will.
How Do You Contest a Will?
After evaluating the available evidence, you have concluded that something is off with the will your loved one left behind. You have decided to take legal action and contest the will in court. How should you go about doing that? We have outlined the steps you must take below.
Confirm You Are Eligible to Contest the Will
To start disputing your loved one’s will, you must first confirm your eligibility. Qualified petitioners include current and previous beneficiaries of the will. You can also dispute the will if you were omitted from it even though you were in line to receive assets according to intestate succession laws.
Enlist the Assistance of an Estate Planning Attorney
Your success rate for contesting a will depends on your ability to collect compelling evidence and make a solid argument in court. Both tasks can be difficult to handle by yourself. Hiring an estate planning attorney is a must if you want a real shot at getting the will discounted by the court.
Work closely with your lawyer to gather important documents and witness statements. Collect anything that you believe could be relevant to your case.
File the Petition With the Appropriate Probate Court
Now that you have collected sufficient evidence, you and your lawyer can file the petition to contest the will. Let your lawyer fill out the relevant forms to ensure they are completed properly. Once the forms are finished, you must file them with the appropriate probate court. The appropriate court is currently handling the will you wish to challenge.
Taking immediate action is necessary if you are planning to dispute a will. Typically, petitioners are given two years from the date the will first enters probate to file their documents. Wait too long to file your petition, and the court may deny your challenge.
Settle the Will Dispute Out of Court
Similar to many other lawsuits, will contests often do not reach the courts. Instead of going to a hearing, the parties involved may settle the dispute themselves. Opting for this course of action makes sense if you can negotiate favorable terms. Settle for nothing less than what you deserve from your loved one’s assets.
Take the Will Contest to Court
Since settling the dispute out of court is an option, that does not mean your case will unfold that way. The other party intent on pushing the will through probate may be stubborn enough to ignore your concerns. If that is the case, you should prepare for a hearing.
Let your lawyer take the lead during that process to ensure you can put forth the best argument possible.
Disputing a will may be the only way to secure a fair portion of your loved one’s estate. Improve your success rate for contesting a will by partnering with an expert in the field. Contact us at Alber Law Group today, and we will gladly help with your will dispute.