How to Know If a Last Will Is Invalid

One of the many reasons an experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource for creating an estate plan, including a Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, is the confidence of knowing your estate plan has been properly prepared. People who believe they know better than an experienced lawyer, often send their families into a legal, financial, and emotional black hole after they die. The article “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will” from The National Law Journal provides a closer look at why it pays to work with a professional.

When a decedent executes a new Last Will near the end of their life and makes a dramatic change to previous estate plans, there may be trouble ahead. When this is the case, several issues need to be examined to ensure that the document is valid. Strong consideration must be given to whether the person had sufficient capacity to execute the document.

When a person is suffering from an illness or near death, they may be susceptible to the improper influence of people who may cause them to make uncharacteristic changes to their estate plan. Any Last Will drafted within the last few months of a person’s life requires careful review.

If, shortly after a person has handed the reins of their financial life to another, using a Power of Attorney in any of its forms (Durable POA, Springing POA) and a new Last Will is created, a red flag should be raised, especially if the Last Will has been changed to benefit this person.

What if a person’s capacity was hovering near the borderline of capacity and incapacity? If a decedent’s mental capacity was questionable at the time the Last Will was executed, the Last Will may not be valid. A person with legal mental capacity must understand the assets they own and clearly understand to whom they are bequeathing assets. The standard for this issue is low, but if the decedent was suffering from a degenerative mental condition or a sudden onset of incapacity due to an illness or accident, the Last Will may be challenged.

If a layperson creates a Last Will or uses an online service to create it and the Last Will does not comply with the state’s estate laws, the Last Will may have technical issues rendering it invalid. When this occurs, it is as if there were no Last Will at all and the estate is distributed according to the laws of the state.

The biggest red flag is the presence of any large changes from the next to Last Will to the final Last Will, with no known reason for the change having been made. This may be a result of changes to mental capacity or undue influence of a third party. An experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource to create a Last Will. They will be among the first to ask why significant changes from a prior Last Will are being requested.

Reference: The National Law Journal (March 30, 2022) “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”