What Do You Need to Know if You Are Considering Taking Legal Action to Contest a Will?
Wills are an essential part of estate planning and allow people to decide how their estate will be split and passed on to others in the event of their death. Unfortunately, in some cases, a will may not accurately represent the testator’s true wishes, or it may not have been appropriately created. These issues can have a negative impact on heirs and beneficiaries, and they may seek to contest the will.
Contesting a will can be a challenging and complex process and should not be undertaken lightly. A knowledgeable Texas attorney can explain what occurs when a will is contested and the impact it can have on the probate process. If you have questions about your unique situation, don’t hesitate to contact The Hatchett Law Firm to schedule a complimentary case assessment session today: 281-771-0560.
Who May Contest a Will in Texas?
Texas law only allows specific individuals to file a will contest. In general, anyone who would be directly impacted by an invalid will has the right to bring their case to court if they doubt the legality of the document.
Examples of people who may be eligible to contest a will include:
- Beneficiaries named in the will
- Heirs who would have inherited if the decedent had died intestate (without a will)
- Individuals who were beneficiaries in a previous will and are now excluded
How Does a Plaintiff Prove to the Court That a Will is Invalid?
Sometimes family members or friends are disappointed when they learn the terms of their loved one’s will. Maybe they believed they would inherit a particular asset or were shocked that they were left out of the will altogether. While this situation can be an emotional and financial blow, it does not necessarily give the dissatisfied individual the legal right to contest the will.
Instead, the person filing the lawsuit must have a valid legal reason (otherwise known as grounds) to dispute the will’s validity. Common grounds for filing a will contest include the following:
- Lack of testamentary capacity: An individual must be of sound mind and understand the consequences of their actions when they make their will. If the testator did not have the mental capacity to make a legal will, you may be able to successfully mount a contest.
- Undue influence: A will should represent the decisions and wishes of the testator. If someone in a position of power has manipulated or coerced them into creating or changing their will, the resulting document may be ruled invalid.
- Lack of due execution: Texas has strict laws regarding the requirements for valid wills. If the will was not created correctly, it can be challenged.
How Does a Contested Will Impact the Probate Process?
In Texas, you may contest a will either before or after the will is admitted to probate. Filing your contest prior to the start of the probate proceedings involves petitioning the probate court to investigate the validity of the will. The will cannot be admitted to probate until the court has held a hearing and ruled on its validity.
Contesting a will early in the probate process effectively freezes the distribution of the estate’s assets until the matter is resolved. This action can delay probate significantly, particularly if the sides cannot come to an agreement and the contest must go to trial. One advantage of contesting a will before probate proceedings is that the burden of proof falls on the executor or personal representative of the estate (or other heirs who support the will) to prove that the will is valid as written.
If the will has already been probated, an individual with standing can still contest it, but the burden is on them to provide a preponderance of evidence that shows the will is invalid. The plaintiff must present their evidence and testimony to the probate court at a hearing, and the court will decide on the will’s validity. If the will is found to be unacceptable, the court may need to figure out how to correct any actions resulting from the original probate, such as property transfers.
What Happens if your Will Contest is Successful?
Before beginning a will contest, it is vital to consult with an experienced probate litigation lawyer to discuss your goals and understand the potential outcomes of your case. It may not be worth the time, expense, and stress of filing a contest if your desired resolution is not possible under the law. If you successfully contest a will, a few things could happen:
- The current will is declared invalid, and the estate must go through intestacy proceedings: If the will is invalidated, the estate must enter intestacy proceedings because there is no longer a usable estate planning document to guide the process. In this situation, the estate will be divided and distributed to heirs by the probate court according to Texas intestacy law. Probate for this type of case can be lengthy because all heirs must be identified and contacted.
- A section of the will is successfully contested: Sometimes, the plaintiff may decide to contest only a provision or addition to a will, such as a codicil or notes written on a will that was added later under undue influence. The ramifications of a successful contest of this type will vary significantly based on the details of the case. However, it may result in a significant change in the distribution of the estate’s assets.
- Settlement is reached without a trial: With the help of a skilled will contest lawyer, you may be able to resolve your matter out of court and reach a solution that is agreeable to all sides. Many will contests end in this way, and a properly negotiated settlement can make the probate process faster and easier.
How Can an Experienced Probate Attorney Assist You?
If you are considering contesting a will at any point in the probate process, you should consult with a trusted probate litigation attorney first to determine the strength of your case and the legal options available to you.
Exploring your choices early is key because there are strict time limits on when you can file a will contest. Contact The Hatchett Law Firm today to speak with a lawyer who can provide the guidance and information you need: 281-771-0560.