When a loved one dies, emotions are often high. In some situations, the way that the deceased person’s estate has been divided can lead to disputes among the beneficiaries of the will. This can lead to a sibling or other family member contesting the will in court.
Probate litigation can be complex, costly, and time-consuming. In some situations, however, a will contest may be necessary to ensure that the wishes of the deceased person (decedent) are followed. Careful estate planning can often help to avoid this type of litigation.
An inheritance dispute lawyer can help you through the process, whether you are contesting a will or fighting back against a family member who wants to contest it. Throughout the process, your attorney will advise you of your rights, likely outcomes, and work with you to achieve the best possible resolution to the case.
Why Might a Family Member Dispute a Will?
Under Texas law, there are specific requirements for the formation of a valid last will and testament. For both holographic (handwritten) and attested wills, the person making the will (testator) must have legal capacity, be of sound mind, and intend to make a will. An attested will also require at least two witnesses, and may include a self-proving affidavit.
Disputes over the last will and testament often arise over one or more of these requirements. In particular, a family member may believe that their loved one did not have the testamentary capacity required to make a will at the time that it was drafted. This often occurs when the testator had a diminished mental capacity due to age, dementia, or even the side effects of an illness.
There are other situations where a family member may contest a will, such as:
- A belief that the will was written under duress, or with the undue influence of another beneficiary;
- A dispute over the meaning of the terms of the will;
- A failure to account for changes in the deceased’s assets in the time between the drafting of the will and the person’s death;
- Interference in the process of writing or signing the will;
- The will was improperly executed;
- There is an allegation that the will is a forgery;
- A second will is discovered;
- Excessive favor towards one family member over others; or
- A belief that the executor failed to distribute the assets of the estate in a timely manner, or a breach of fiduciary duty.
Any of these situations may lead to probate litigation, where the parties go to court to test the legitimacy of a will. This type of litigation may revolve around the competing interests of beneficiaries and creditors, the behavior of the personal representative of the estate, or even the tax implications of the will.
In some situations, the dispute can be resolved through mediation, a form of alternative dispute resolution. Otherwise, the parties may take the matter to court and request a judge to make a final determination as to the validity of the will.
What Happens When Beneficiaries Disagree?
When a person dies with a last will and testament, their estate is distributed in accordance with Texas probate law. During probate, a court recognizes the person’s death and oversees the payment of debts and distribution of assets. The process starts with the filing of a probate application.
Interested parties can contest a will either before probate opens, or after the probate process has started. With some exceptions, a will contest must be done within 2 years of the will being admitted to probate. An estate cannot be finalized if the will is being contested by a family member or another potential beneficiary.
Only people who have “standing” can contest a will, including an heir, devisee, spouse, creditor, or any other having a property or inheritance right in or claim against an estate being administered. Generally, if you have a pecuniary (financial) interest that will be affected by the will’s probate, you may have the standing to contest it. If you have a question about whether you have the standing to challenge a will, a law firm that has experience in inheritance disputes can advise you of your rights.
Before a will is admitted to probate, the proponent of the will – or the person who wants the will to be probated – has the burden of proof to show that it is valid. Once the will has been admitted to probate, the person contesting the will must establish that the will is invalid by a preponderance of the evidence (which means that it is more likely than not).
The lawsuit must specify the grounds on which the will is being challenged. Under Texas law, a will can be contested on the basis of revocation (i.e., the will have been revoked, often by the execution of a later will), lack of testamentary capacity, improper execution, undue influence, forgery, fraud, or mistake.
Texas estate disputes can be complex, and take a considerable amount of time and money to handle. However, they may be necessary if there is some question as to the validity of a will. A skilled El Paso inheritance dispute lawyer can help you determine if there is a basis for filing a contest – and can help you defend a will from a challenge.
What Happens If a Will Is Declared Invalid?
If a will is declared invalid and there is an alternative, valid will, then the estate will be distributed in accordance with that will. However, if there is no alternative will, then the decedent’s estate will be distributed according to the rules of intestate succession (as though they did not have a will). For some beneficiaries, this may result in a worse outcome than if they had not challenged the will, so it is important to understand how intestacy will affect your rights before contesting a will.
Will I Give Up My Right to Inherit If I Contest a Will?
Some wills contain a provision known as a no-contest or forfeiture clause. If the will that you seek to contest contains such a clause, then you may forfeit your right to inherit if you challenge the will. These clauses are generally enforceable under Texas law unless you can prove that (1) there was just cause for bringing the action, and (2) the action was brought and maintained in good faith. Be sure to check with an El Paso inheritance dispute lawyer before making any decision about whether to contest a will.
Facing Probate Litigation? We Are Here to Help.
After losing a loved one, the last thing that you want to do is enter into a legal dispute with your family members. If there is any question as to the validity of an estate plan, however, it may be necessary to contest a will. A skilled probate attorney can help.
At Forbes & Forbes, we represent Texans in all aspects of estate planning and probate issues. With decades of combined experience, we have the knowledge and practical skills to help you achieve the best possible outcome. To schedule a consultation with an inheritance dispute lawyer, contact our law office at 915-533-5441 or fill out our online contact form.