Most of the time, the executor passes the deceased’s will through probate without conflict or challenges to the will’s validity. But will contests do happen sometimes. An heir can claim that they have been shortchanged their “rightful” inheritance or that the will does not reflect the deceased’s true final wishes for their estate.
To succeed, a will contest must show that the will violates the law in some way. This can be either technical or based on problems with how the will was drafted. Four common justifications for a will challenge are:
- Undue influence. To be valid, a will must reflect the testator’s free will. Someone who drafts or changes a will due to another person’s manipulation, pressure or threats is not acting under their own free will, and thus the will document is invalid under Pennsylvania law. This is known as “undue influence.” For example, the caretaker of an elderly and vulnerable person could lie and manipulate their client into believing that their family does not love them and that the caretaker is the only one who deserves the inheritance.
- Lack of testamentary capacity. Along with free will, a testator must have testamentary capacity when drawing up their will. This means they have the mental capacity to understand the contents of the will and the implications of signing it. A will created or amended while the testator is suffering from dementia or severe mental illness, or is high on drugs, could be challenged due to lack of testamentary capacity.
- The will has been replaced. A second will should contain language making it clear that it is replacing the original will. Absent that, there could be controversy over which document is the legitimate will.
- Technical reasons. Pennsylvania requires the testator to be at least 18 and be “of sound mind.” They must declare in the presence of two witnesses that the document is their will. The witnesses must then sign the will in the testator’s presence. The state does not recognize holographic wills (a will handwritten by the testator that does not meet the state’s legal requirements) or oral wills. A will that does not meet these and other rules is invalid.
A will contest can be a big headache for the executor and cause long, costly delays in the probate process. Fortunately, executors have the right to retain an estate administration attorney to advise and represent them.