Will contests are not as uncommon as some might think. While it’s certainly true that the Last Will and Testament is generally accepted as the final word on the disposition of a decedent’s estate, the reality is that somewhere between one-half of one percent to three percent of all wills in the United States end up facing a legal challenge. And though that’s a small percentage of the total wills probated each year, it still represents a sizable number of overall will contests. Regardless of whether you’re an heir interested in contesting a will or a testator trying to ensure that your last wishes will be respected after your death, it’s important to understand how will challenges work and why they happen.
Why Would Anyone Challenge a Will?
Given that the success rate of will challenges is somewhere around 1%, some might wonder why anyone bothers. The fact is that there are times where heirs have cause to believe that the will that has been presented to the court does not reflect the testator’s actual intent. In many instances, this occurs due to verbal promises made by the testator in the past – promises that some heirs try to enforce in court by claiming that the written will is either a forgery or was written and signed based on undue influence or other nefarious actions.
The problem that most challenges face is that courts do tend to give the presumption of validity to wills that come before the judge. To convince a court to throw out a will, the challenger must overcome that presumption with clear and convincing evidence that the will is somehow not valid. That’s a high bar to meet, and explains why so few challengers ever find success in their court efforts. Still, even that high standard doesn’t seem to stop disgruntled heirs and other challengers from trying to void wills that they find less than satisfying.
Who Has Standing to Contest a Will?
In Michigan, a challenger needs to be found to have the proper standing before he or she will be allowed to contest a will. There are two ways to have standing for such a contest. The first involves being a person who stands to benefit from the will as it’s currently written. The second way involves demonstrating that the challenger will be eligible to inherit under that states laws on intestate succession if the will is set aside by the court. That latter option would include spouses, children, and other close relatives who would be entitled by law to an inheritance if the will were voided.
It’s worth noting that many testators include clauses in their wills that are designed to dissuade disgruntled family members from issuing these kinds of challenges. An example of this type of clause would be one that penalized a will contest by negating any bequest to the challenger that’s already present in the will. This is known as a “no contest” clause, and can only be enforced in Michigan in cases where the challenger’s claim is found to be without any valid cause. If the proceedings are allowed to move forward, clauses like that are ignored by the court.
What Grounds Are There for Contesting a Will?
Of course, no one can just challenge a will on a whim. And while there are plenty of instances in which people contest wills based on nothing more than their belief that the terms are somehow unfair, those challengers are routinely discounted by the courts. To successfully challenge a will, you need to have actual grounds for contesting it. In the state of Michigan, that means that you need to demonstrate one of several things:
- Improper execution of the will. If the will is not properly signed and witnessed – or contains language that makes it difficult to determine the decedent’s intent, the document may be vulnerable to legal challenge.
- Testator lack of capacity. The challenger can also contest the will if he or she believes that the testator was not of sound mind when the will was executed. Evidence will need to be presented to prove that the testator lacked the mental capacity to execute the will at the time of its creation.
- Undue Influence. If evidence can demonstrate that the testator was unduly pressured or influenced into executing the will by a person who benefits from its provisions, then a successful challenge might be possible.
- Instances of fraud include false statements or misrepresentations designed to trick the testator into signing the will. For example, if the testator believed that he was signing a document that provided for his children’s bequests and was instead signing a will that disinherited those children, that can be grounds for a challenge.
- A will can also be challenged if it can be demonstrated that there is a more recent will in existence.
How Can You Avoid a Will Challenge?
If you’re thinking of challenging a will, it’s important to understand those grounds for a will contest and discuss them with an attorney prior to acting. On the other hand, if you’re a testator preparing your own will, then it can be helpful to take steps to protect your last wishes from such challenges. A probate and estate planning lawyer can help you to evaluate options like trusts and other planning tools that can provide you with the additional estate protection you need to ensure that your end-of-life intent cannot be called into question.
Whether you’re in need of better protections for your estate or an attorney to help you when you’re contesting a will that you believe to be invalid, the probate and estate planning experts at Biddinger, Bitzer & Estelle, PLLC can provide the assistance you need. Our team will provide the legal help you need to ensure that your objectives can be met in a way that protects your interests. If you’d like to learn more about contesting a will or creating a better will, contact us at our website or call us today at (989) 872-5601.