If you’ve ever listened to the morning news or scanned the paper while having your coffee, you’re likely familiar with the concept of contesting a will. One or two high-profile estate plan challenges usually make the news each year, most often those of celebrities, businessmen, socialites and other similarly wealthy people.
These claims capture our attention usually because of the preexisting fame of the person who died, or the huge amounts of money involved. Because the cases we read about usually involve people who are either famous or extremely wealthy, some people assume that money is the only reason to ever challenge or contest a will or trust.
There may be financial motives as well, but most will or trust contests aren’t rooted in greed, but instead in a quest for justice and fairness.
Capacity of the testator
Many will contests arise because it is believed that the testator (the person for whom or by whom the will was prepared) didn’t have the mental capacity to properly understand and agree to the terms. A convincing argument can be made that a person who either made a will for the first time or significantly altered the terms of an existing one in close proximity to death from a terminal disease or while suffering from an age-related neurological conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s might not have fully understood the ramifications of his or her actions.
Some people retain their full mental faculties right up until the day they die, but many others don’t. Someone suffering from dementia, for example, is unlikely to have the mental capacity to understand the impact of changing a will, or the ability to discern what will happen if terms are altered to give money to one party instead of another. This is particularly apropos when a long-standing will or trust was drastically changed very close to the time of the person’s death, and it sometimes coincides with an argument that one person has exerted undue influence over the testator to convince him or her to make the changes.
Sometimes estate plans are challenged because of a single person’s undue influence over the testator. In some cases, a beneficiary or caregiver will convince a vulnerable testator to make significant changes to a will or trust that directly benefit the person exerting the influence. These changes often come at the expense of other beneficiaries or charitable organizations, some of whom could then challenge the validity of the revised estate plan.
If undue influence is found, then the probate court could invalidate newly altered provisions of a will or trust, or void the entire document altogether. Voiding an estate plan might leave the entirety of the decedent’s estate at the mercy of state intestacy laws.
Of course, these aren’t the only reasons why a will or trust challenge would be appropriate. If you are interested in contesting a New York estate plan, you should contact an experienced attorney.