Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

What Sparks the Contesting of a Will?

A last will and testament is the document used to direct your executor to distribute assets and property according to your wishes. However, it’s not uncommon for disgruntled or distant family members or others to dispute the validity of the will. A recent article titled “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested” from Vents Magazine explains the top five factors to keep in mind when preparing your will.

Undue influence is a commonly invoked reason for a challenge. If a potential beneficiary can prove the person making the will (the testator) was influenced by another person to make decisions they would not have otherwise made, a will challenge could be brought to court. Undue influence means the testator’s decision was significantly affected by a person who stood to gain something by the outcome of the will and made a concerted effort to change the testator’s mind.

Even if there was no evidence of fraud, any suspicion of the testator’s being influenced is enough for a court to accept a case. If you think someone unduly influenced a loved one, especially if they suffer from any mental frailties or dementia, you may have cause to bring a case.

Outright fraud or forgery is another reason for the will to be contested. If there have been many erasures or signature styles appear different from one document to another, there may have been fraud. An estate planning attorney should examine documents to evaluate whether there is enough cause for suspicion to challenge the will.

Improper witnesses. The testator is required to sign the will with witnesses present. In some states, only one witness is required. In most states, two witnesses must be present to sign the will in front of the testator. A beneficiary may not be a witness to the signing of the will. Some states have changed laws to allow for remote signings in response to COVID. If the rules have not been followed, the will may be invalid.

Mistaken identity seems farfetched. However, it is a common occurrence, especially when someone has a common name or more than one person in the family has the same name, and the document has not been properly signed or witnessed. This could create confusion and make the document vulnerable to a challenge. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to prepare documents to withstand any challenges.

Capacity in the law means someone is able to understand the concept of a will and contents of the document they are signing, along with the identities of the people to whom they are leaving their assets. The person doesn’t need to have perfect mental health, so people with mild cognitive impairments, such as depression or anxiety, may make and sign a will. A medical opinion may be needed, if there might be any doubt as to whether a person had testamentary capacity when the will is signed.

A will contest can be time-consuming and expensive, so keep these issues in mind, especially if the family includes some litigious individuals.

Reference: Vents Magazine (May 6, 2022) “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested”

Can I Avoid Financial Exploitation?

AARP’s recent article entitled “The Legal Consequences of Elder Fraud Can Be Steepreports that romance scams are on the rise. Older, lonely, or heartbroken adults are common targets. In Florida in 2020, $40.1 million was stolen from victims who were victims of a crime ring or bad actor posing as a potential suitor.

Some people lose their whole life savings in a matter of months.

Many other financial crimes are carried out by fraudsters, such as phony investment scams, phone and gift card scams, lottery scams, Medicare and Social Security scams and more.

There is no limit on how creative these criminals can be. Family, friends, and caregivers are also not immune from skimming funds for their own use.

The average amount lost per victim is $34,000. When a person is acting as a fiduciary, the number soars to $83,000. The older the victim, the greater the average amount of stolen assets.

As soon as exploitation is suspected or confirmed, action should be taken. When exploitation is suspected, take these steps to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute the criminals:

  1. Talk to the victim, who may not be aware of the exploitation
  2. Contact the authorities and follow their instructions
  3. Notify financial advisers who may be able to put a freeze on accounts
  4. Document the victim’s interactions with the suspect
  5. Talk to all witnesses to interactions between the suspect and victim; and
  6. Talk to an elder law attorney who can discuss your legal options regarding guardianship or conservatorship if the victim lacks capacity to handle their own affairs.

Reference: AARP (Feb. 22, 2022) “The Legal Consequences of Elder Fraud Can Be Steep”

What’s the Latest on Country Star Charley Pride’s Estate?

Grammy-winning country star Charley Pride died from COVID-19 in December, and an article from 5 NBC DFW entitled “Charley Pride’s ‘Secret’ Son Contests Will” reports that his son Tyler has revealed the family “secret.” His story started with an affair between his mother, a flight attendant, and his father, country music’s first Black superstar.

At the time of their relationship, Charley was already married to his wife of many years, Rozene, and the couple had three children. A paternity test later confirmed that Tyler was also Charley’s son.

“We made it through and had the best relationship that we could, per the circumstances,” said Tyler. “We still got to talk on the phone a lot and get to know each other that way, but it was difficult because of his situation and having to keep peace at home, as he put it over and over.”

Tyler said his father visited when he was able, and even after he turned 18 and Charley’s obligation to financially support him ended, Tyler said his father stayed involved in his life. However, when Charley died of COVID-19, Tyler said the family did not even tell him that his father was sick. In fact, Tyler’s name was not included in the obituary, and he said he was not allowed to attend the funeral.

Tyler also wasn’t named in Charley’s will, which Tyler has filed a lawsuit to contest. He says there was undue influence by Rozene over her husband, who’d publicly acknowledged mental health struggles.

“I don’t think he could imagine that this is going on right now and I don’t think it’s what he wanted. Because he always said he wanted his kids taken care of equally. Up until his death, that’s what I was told every time we talked,” said Tyler.

Rozene’s statement said, “Tyler does not have a valid claim, so he has resorted to a hurtful smear campaign. His attack on Charley hurts me and his other children deeply, but we all know that Charley was doing great physically and mentally and making his own decisions, until he was taken down by COVID. Much of what Tyler is saying about Charley and me is a lie that Tyler hopes reporters will spread to grab headlines.”

However, Tyler says this isn’t a financial fight. It’s instead about honoring his father’s wishes and finally being recognized as his son.

“He is my dad and I’m proud to be able to tell that part of the story because I am part of his story,” said Tyler.

Reference: 5 NBC DFW (June 11, 2021) “Charley Pride’s ‘Secret’ Son Contests Will”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

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