A will is a legal document in which a person specifies how his or her assets will be managed and distributed upon their death. When someone dies without a will, or when a will is declared invalid by a probate court, then it is called dying “intestate.” When someone dies intestate, then the estate is distributed according to the state’s laws of descent and distribution.
A will serves many purposes, it allows an individual to name a guardian if they have minor children, it allows them to decide which individual would best serve as the executor of their estate, and it allows for the distribution of a person’s property to their heirs, beneficiaries, friends, or charities according to their wishes.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for an estate to go into full-blown litigation. Whenever a will is executed as a result of undue influence, fraud, or mistake, then it can be declared partially or completely void in a probate proceeding. Undue influence occurs when someone is putting pressure on the maker to the extent that the person’s free will to make decisions has been substituted by the desires of the influencer. Examples of undue influence can include threats of violence or criminal prosecution of against the testator, or the threat to abandon an ill testator.
Fraud involves the misrepresentation of essential facts to persuade the testator to make him or her sign a will that benefits the individual who misrepresented the facts. However, the testator still acted freely when he or she signed the will. A mistake can occur when the testator accidentally signed the wrong document; this is common when husbands and wives draft mutual wills.
When beneficiaries are deprived of benefiting from a will because of fraud or undue influence, they can obtain relief by contesting a will, otherwise known as probate litigation. If the probate court determines that there is fraud or undue influence, then the court may prevent the wrongdoer from receiving any type of benefit from the will and may instead distribute the property to those who contested the will.
Whether you’re a beneficiary, an executor or an administrator, it is not easy to deal with wills and probate. Contesting a will can ruin families and put stress on relationships; however, often times probate litigation becomes inevitable when all efforts at diplomacy have failed.