Only a person with a legal interest in an estate has standing to contest a Will in court. Generally, that means the person stands to benefit financially if the court invalidates the Will. A person with no interest in the estate does not have legal standing to contest a Will in court.
Individuals with standing to contest a Will include heirs under the laws of intestate succession, beneficiaries under the contested Will or a prior Will, and fiduciaries of the estate. Often, the person who contests a Will is a family member disinherited in the Will or a person who would receive a greater share under intestate succession or a previous Will than the share provided in the contested Will.
In Michigan, there are four primary legal grounds that support contesting a Will. The reasons relate either to the circumstances surrounding creation and execution of the document by the decedent or the nature of the document itself.
One of the commonly asserted legal grounds for contesting a Will is lack of testamentary capacity. This type of claim usually arises when an elder with cognitive impairment executes a new Will shortly before death, particularly when the new Will differs significantly from a previous Will.
Michigan law requires a person to have sufficient mental capacity to execute a Will. Under the statute, four requirements must be met. The testator has the required capacity if he or she: (1) Has the ability to understand that he or she is providing for the disposition of his or her property after death, (2) Has the ability to know the nature and extent of his or her property, (3) Knows the natural objects of his or her bounty, and (4) Has the ability to understand in a reasonable manner the general nature and effect of his or her act in signing the will. The required mental capacity must exist at the time of execution of the Will.
If evidence relating to the circumstances surrounding execution of the Will indicates that the testator did not have sufficient mental capacity to execute the Will, an interested person has a legal basis for contesting the Will. Additional details regarding the mental capacity to make a Will are available in our previous blog post, Does Your Aging Parent Have the Mental Capacity to Make a Will?
Another common basis for contesting a Will is a claim that another person exerted undue influence over the testator with regard to execution of the Will. Undue influence is a legal concept that means another person unfairly coerced or pressured the testator into signing the Will. The influence must be so severe that it overcame the testator’s free will and own wishes about the contents of the Will and disposition of the estate.
Elders often are susceptible to undue influence because of their circumstances. However, proving undue influence is challenging, because of the nature of the conduct that constitutes the unfair coercion. More information about undue influence in a Will contest is available in our previous blog post, Litigating Undue Influence Disputes.
Fraudulent conduct is a third legal basis for contesting a Will. If the testator was deceived into signing a Will, evidence of the fraud supports a challenge to the validity of the Will. The most common illustration of this type of conduct is a person who signed a Will but believed it was an entirely different document, based on representations of the person requesting the signature.
Michigan law includes specific requirements that must be met for a Will to be valid. If the document fails to conform with the requirements, it may be invalid. This basis for contesting a will is not as straightforward as it may seem. In addition to establishing specific formalities for making a Will, state law also has built-in leniency rules that a court takes into account in determining the conformity of a document to the legal requirements.
If you face a situation that may warrant contesting a Will, the first step you should take is talking with an experienced probate litigation attorney. That is the only way you can determine with certainty whether the circumstances support challenging probate of a Will. It is important to proceed promptly if this situation arises, because you have a limited amount of time to contest a Will after it is presented for probate.
Contesting a Will is a complex, lengthy legal process, with no assurance of success. Your decision about whether to contest a Will should take into account all aspects, factors, and consequences. In most cases, a Will contest involves family members opposing each other in a court proceeding, which can have long-lasting effects beyond the litigation itself. Your attorney will make sure you take all relevant factors into account in making your decision.
If you need assistance with a situation that may involve contesting a Will, our probate litigation lawyers at BRMM are here to help. We take the time to understand the circumstances and work with you to determine the best way to proceed. Our substantial Michigan probate litigation experience positions us extremely well to help clients who encounter issues surrounding the estate of a deceased family member.At BRMM, we’ve been providing legal services to clients for more than 40 years. Our compassion, credentials, and commitment set us apart. Call us at (248) 494-4577 to talk with us about matters relating to estate administration or other areas of concern. We serve clients in Troy, Oakland County, and surrounding areas, as well as out-of-state clients with estate and probate matters arising in Michigan.