Perhaps one of the worst times to engage in legal entanglements is after the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, fighting over the estate of a deceased, or "estate litigation," is extremely common. From disputing heirs to will contests, the management and division of the estate of someone who has died is territory ripe for legal conflict.
Will contests are a common form of estate litigation. A will contest is a legal action that challenges the validity of a will. Generally speaking, a court will presume a will is valid unless such a contest is made. Some grounds for contesting a will are discussed below.
Undue Influence - A testator, the person whose will it is, who is compelled or coerced to make designations of a will by another person is said to have been under undue influence at the time of writing the will. Cases of undue influence can entail certain children or all children being cut out of a will in favor of other individuals. Courts will invalidate a will if it can be proven that there was undue influence.
Lack of Capacity - In a previous post, we discussed how a guardian can be appointed to make decisions on behalf of an individual who is no longer able to do so for himself. Similarly, such a person is not deemed to be able to make decisions about his estate. The law requires that someone have the mental competency to make a will or form a trust. The courts generally apply a test that the testator understands the nature of his decisions about his estate - where or to whom is his estate going?
Lack of Formalities - In every state, there are a set of formality requirements that are necessary to properly execute a will. Most states require that the will be signed and witnessed by at least two unrelated parties. This means that the two witnesses cannot both be your siblings or be married to one another. Each state has the authority to determine what type of requirements it deems to be necessary.
Forged Documents - Some cases of will contests are as simple as a forged signature. Signatures obviously must be original on a document in order to be valid and meet a state's requirement.
Some will contests involve public figures and high profile estates. Examples include the estate of Billy Wayne Smith, a wealthy Texas octogenarian who married American model and actress Anna Nicole Smith. The lengthy battle of his estate following his death eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This messy litigation took over five years to resolve and led to another Supreme Court Case over Anna Nicole's inheritance which was decided after Anna Nicole died.
Estate litigation can often be extremely emotionally painful and can divide families and generations. If found in this situation, it is best to consult an attorney for legal advice, especially given the emotionally fragile and sensitive nature of such issues.
Angela Yu is a New Jersey and New York attorney with a multifaceted practice area focusing in corporate, real estate and general contract law. She uses her interest in real life application of the law to author articles and other scholarship on a broad range of cutting-edge legal and business topics. Ms. Yu is a published legal author and holds a J.D. and M.B.A. from Rutgers School of Law and Rutgers Business School. Neither she nor Mike Farhi provides legal advice on this website. This blog post and any blog posts do not constitute legal advice.