With the increase in complexity of today's family structures and the dynamics that can result, the family members of a loved one who has passed away often find themselves in a position in which they question the validity of their loved one's purported estate plan. The family members may doubt that the decedent's disposition actually reflects his or her wishes, and as a result, the family may want to challenge the will's validity. In order to successfully do so, the family members typically must file a will contest action. In such actions, the court is asked to disregard the decedent's will and instead provide a distribution of the decedent's estate which more closely resembles what the decedent actually intended. The family members must allege that there are grounds for setting aside the decedent's will, including the following:
- Undue influence—A will contest on the basis of undue influence involves the issue of whether the decedent, of his or her own free will, made the distribution provided in his or her estate plan, free from coercion by another individual. In Pennsylvania, a person challenging a will on the basis of undue influence must demonstrate the following elements: 1) a confidential relationship between the proponent of the will's validity and the testator; 2) the proponent of the will's validity receives a substantial benefit under the will; and 3) the testator had a weakened intellect.
- Testamentary capacity—For a valid will, the decedent must have been of sound mind. Unfortunately, sometimes a will is executed at a time in which a decedent lacked the mental capability to understand the extent of his or her estate, who would ordinarily receive the estate, and/or the ramifications of what he or she has provided in the will. This can be due to a myriad of reasons, including a debilitating mental or physical condition, declining mental abilities as a result of advanced age, mental illness, and impairment due to the use of alcohol and/or drugs.
- Fraud—A will can be invalidated on the ground of fraud if a person employed a deceptive tactic on the decedent, causing the decedent to be cheated or deceived into committing an error regarding the disposition of his or her property.
- Forgery—Sometimes will contests involve an issue regarding the authenticity of the decedent's signature on his or her putative estate planning documents. In these types of cases, the factual question of whether a signature is truly that of the decedent often requires the involvement of handwriting experts and/or other document examiners.
- Improper execution—Certain standards exist in Pennsylvania regarding the execution of wills, including signature and witnessing requirements. If a decedent's will fails to comply with these formalities, the will may be deemed invalid.
Because will contests necessarily involve complex legal and factual issues, often presented while family members are still grieving over the loss of a loved one, it is critical that you seek the assistance of highly qualified and experienced attorneys to provide the legal knowledge, skills, and guidance that you will need to successfully challenge a will or other estate planning document. The attorneys at Steinbacher, Goodall & Yurchak have this experience and are ready to assist you through the difficult process that a will contest presents. If you would like to obtain more information concerning the services that our will contest attorneys can provide, please feel free to call us at (800) 351-8334.
We have offices located in Williamsport and State College, and offer in home appointments to those who cannot travel.