When a Massachusetts resident signs his or her will, the common assumption is that the disposition of the assets owned by the signer will be distributed according to the terms of the will. Unfortunately, some wills make people mad.
This anger is usually the result of one or more prospective heirs receiving less from the will than they may have anticipated.
The maker of the will is of course unavailable to make revisions in the terms of the will. The only avenue available to a disgruntled heir is a will contest, a legal proceeding whose purpose is invalidating all or a portion of the will.
The essential elements of a will contest
A will contest may be brought only by an heir named in the will or a relative of the decedent who may have a claim on some of the decedent’s assets. Will contests place a heavy burden of proof on the person contesting the validity of the document.
Success in a will contest depends upon the ability of the person making the challenge to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the decedent lacked the requisite mental capacity to sign a valid will. This point is proved by reviewing the various arguments that can lead a court to declaring the will invalid.
Lack of formalities
Massachusetts law requires every will to be in writing and signed by a person over 18. The signing must be witnessed by two adults who are themselves capable of making a valid will. Because most wills are drafted by experienced lawyers, the formalities are rarely overlooked and do not often provide proper grounds for declaring the will invalid.
Lack of mental capacity
To be valid and enforceable under Massachusetts law, the person signing the will must possess sufficient mental capacity to understand the legal effect of the will. If the maker of the will lacks actual capacity, either because of mental deterioration or some other affliction that might prevent the person from comprehending the effect of signing the will, the will may be declared to be invalid.
Proving lack of actual capacity often depends on testimony from the decedent’s health care providers, such as a psychiatrist or neurologist.
Lack of free will
Lack of free will can also be proved by showing that one or more people exercised undue influence over the decedent and thereby distorted their intentions.
Undue influence is usually proved by demonstrating that the persons alleged to have been exercising such control had an unusually close or controlling relationship with the decedent before the will was executed.
Another variation on showing that the decedent lacked free will is to prove that the terms of the will were changed to satisfy a fraudulent misrepresentation made by another heir.
The person challenging the will must prove that this misrepresentation involved a material fact in the decedent’s decision-making before signing the will and that the decedent relied upon it when making the will.
Will contests are expensive and often unsuccessful. Before commencing a will contest, a disgruntled heir may wish to consult an experienced probate attorney for an evaluation of the evidence and an opinion about the likelihood of success.