A will contest is a dispute involving the validity of a last will and testament. While they are sometimes necessary, will contests are expensive, and they can lead to stress and emotional pain for families.
Below, we’ll explain how will contests work and how to avoid them with help from an estate planning attorney.
When Is a Will Invalid?
You can’t dispute a will simply because you disagree with its terms or because you were disinherited. Instead, you must prove that the will is not legally valid. You might question a will’s validity if:
- It wasn’t properly signed and witnessed
- Your loved one lacked the mental capacity to make a will
- Someone unduly influenced your loved one during the drafting of the will
- There is evidence of fraud
To contest a will, you must file paperwork with the probate court and participate in multiple hearings, depositions, and other proceedings. It’s typically in your best interest to consult an experienced probate lawyer before you dispute a will’s validity. The process is highly technical, and it can quickly become time-intensive and costly.
How Can I Avoid a Will Contest?
Because a will contest can involve prolonged litigation that pits family members against each other, most people try their best to avoid these disputes. However, a badly-written or outdated will can lead to a will contest and force your loved ones to fight for their inheritances in court.
Below, we discuss some simple steps that can help prevent this.
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Proactively Identify and Defuse Potential Disputes
You can use your knowledge of your family to avoid possible controveries. If you foresee arguments over a cherished asset (or a particular family member getting said asset), discuss your concerns with an experienced estate planning lawyer. You can work together and build a comprehensive estate plan that is designed to withstand a will contest.
More importantly, your estate plan can try to anticipate and defuse potential disputes by distributing property in a way that is fair and compassionate. Before you do this, you’ll need to think deeply about your family’s needs and feelings as well as the implications of each estate planning decision.
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Explain the Terms of Your Will Clearly and Thoroughly
A vague, poorly-written will can cause confusion, disputes, and unnecessary litigation. Even people who have lots of resources sometimes fall into this trap.
For example, the beloved actor Robin Williams bequeathed his entire estate to his three children, but stipulated that his wife of three years could live in their home for the rest of her life. His will stated that after her death, his children would receive the home.
While Mr. Williams had clearly specified how his high-value assets should be distributed, there was confusion about how to handle his personal property. His wife claimed that she should keep his personal effects, including clothing, books, photographs, and collections. His children argued that she only had access to the house. After a lengthy legal fight, the case eventually settled out of court.
The Williams family’s dispute might have been avoided if the will had explicitly outlined how to distribute all of the assets. The lesson is that if you foresee your children fighting over an item or items, you should specifically address them in your estate plan.
Ask for Your Family’s Input
Deciding on your estate planning priorities and making the final decisions ultimately falls to you. However, it’s sometimes a good idea to consult with your family about certain things. For example, you might want to ask your children and loved ones for their opinions about the following:
- Who should be your will’s executor
- How you should structure an inheritance to a disabled loved one and plan for his or her care after your death
- Who should receive cherished or sentimental property
You might be surprised to discover that your relatives are more concerned about family photographs and your favorite afghan than your stock portfolio. In a 2005 survey, the majority of baby boomers said they placed a higher value on their family’s stories and personal items than financial assets.
You should also ask yourself other questions about your family members’ expectations, such as:
- Is there someone who everyone will expect to be your executor? Are they really the best person for the job?
- Will a generous gift to one family member leave another feeling snubbed?
- Can you alleviate concerns and minimize hurt feelings by providing family members with a clear explanation of any potentially controversial decisions?
Consider Creative Solutions to Your Family’s Needs
Your estate plan might involve more than a simple will. Trusts and other estate planning tools can help you distribute your assets equitably and minimize the risk of a dispute.
For example, a trust might be the best solution if you’re giving a disabled loved one an inheritance, splitting a beloved cottage or vacation home between several family members, or bequeathing assets to a child.
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Work With an Experienced Estate Planning Lawyer
You run a higher risk of creating a will contest if you try to draft and execute a will on your own. While there are a lot of do-it-yourself will programs out there, none of them will provide you with the kind of detailed, practical, personalized, and state-specific advice that a skilled estate planning lawyer can offer.
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Review Your Estate Plan Regularly
People sometimes forget to change their wills after significant life events such as the death of a family member, a marriage, a divorce, or the birth of a child. If your estate plan is outdated, you might accidentally disinherit a loved one. This can easily lead to bad feelings and even litigation.
At Phillips & Santana, we know that the best estate plans constantly evolve to meet the client’s personal needs as well as Michigan’s trust and estate laws. We encourage all of our clients to meet with us regularly to assess their situation and examine whether their estate plan still meets their needs. As we get to know you better and learn more about your personal goals, we can help you identify and avoid potential disputes by crafting solutions that are customized to your unique circumstances.
Law Offices of Kari Santana: West Michigan’s Estate Planning Team
The Law Offices of Kari Santana is a Grand Rapids estate planning firm offering a full range of services. We pride ourselves on our ability to craft estate plans that are both practical and creative. We also strive to build long-term, healthy relationships with our clients and develop estate plans that change to reflect their evolving lives and long-term goals.
Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America. (2005). Discoveries of the American legacies [white paper] (ENT-120-N). Minneapolis, MN: Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America. Retrieved from https://www.allianzlife.com/-/media/files/allianz/documents/ent_120_n.pdf?la=en&hash=58FDB5A89AA791C6AAB30DFBF904489334367594.
Isidore, C. (2015, March 31). Judge tells Robin Williams’ family to settle out of court. CNN Money. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2015/03/31/news/companies/robin-willliams-court-fight/index.html.
The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.