Contesting a Last Will & Testament

Will contest in Surrogate's CourtIn New York, like many other states, a Last Will & Testament is a legal document outlining how an individual’s assets will be distributed after their death. While the creation of a will is usually a well-intentioned effort to make sure that a person’s wishes are respected, there are times when disputes arise regarding its validity. In such cases, contesting the will may be necessary. In this article, we will explore the process of contesting a Last Will & Testament in New York, the grounds for contesting, and important points to consider during the process.

Grounds for Contesting a Will:

In New York, contesting a will requires valid grounds, which include:

  • Lack of Testamentary Capacity: The person who made the will (testator) must have been of sound mind at the time of its creation. If it is believed that the testator lacked the mental capacity to understand the nature of their assets, the identity of their heirs, or the consequences of their decisions, the will may be challenged on this ground.
  • Undue Influence: This occurs when the testator’s decisions are manipulated by someone exerting control over them. If it can be proven that the testator was coerced, pressured, or influenced into making certain decisions in the will, it may be contested on the grounds of undue influence.
  • Fraud: A will can be contested if it is believed that the testator was tricked or deceived into signing the document under false pretenses.
  • Improper Execution: New York law requires that a will be signed in the presence of at least two witnesses, who must also sign the document. If the execution of the will does not meet these requirements, it may be deemed invalid.
  • Revocation: If there is evidence that the testator revoked the will before their death, either by destroying it or creating a new, valid will, the old will may be contested.

The Process of Contesting a Will:

  1. Standing: To contest a will, an individual must have legal standing, meaning they have a direct interest in the outcome. Typically, this includes beneficiaries named in the will, those who would inherit under intestate succession laws if the will were deemed invalid, or creditors of the deceased.
  2. Pre-Objection Discovery (NY SCPA §1404): Pre-objection discovery allows interested parties to conduct an investigation and gather information before deciding whether to object to the admission of the will to probate. This process is designed to help parties make an informed decision about raising objections to the will, based on the gathered evidence.
  3. Filing an Objection: To initiate the process, an objection must be filed with the Surrogate’s Court in the county where the deceased resided. This should occur during the probate process, before the court accepts the will for probate. Caution: beware of the In Terrorem clause!
  4. Post Objection Discovery: Once the objection is filed, both parties engage in the discovery process, gathering evidence and information to support their respective positions.
  5. Pre-Trial Motions: Before the trial begins, both parties may file pre-trial motions to resolve procedural or legal issues, which can include requests for summary judgment, motions to dismiss, or motions to compel discovery.
  6. Trial: If the case proceeds to trial, both parties will present their evidence and arguments to the court, including witness testimonies and expert opinions.
  7. Court Decision: After considering the evidence, the judge, or the jury, will issue a decision either validating or invalidating the will. If the will is invalidated, the assets may be distributed according to intestate succession laws or a prior valid will, if one exists.

Important Points to Consider:

  • Legal Representation: Contesting a will is a complex process, and it is highly recommended that you consult with an experienced estate litigation attorney to guide you through the process and ensure your interests are protected.
  • Time Constraints: In New York, objections to a will must generally be filed within a specific timeframe. Failure to meet these deadlines may result in losing the right to contest the will.
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