Successfully challenging a will is very difficult. The decision to contest a will must be based on more than simply being displeased with its contents or contempt for beneficiaries you feel should not be entitled to receive anything. There must be valid legal grounds for objecting to the will. In New York State, these objections generally fall under one of four categories: lack of testamentary (mental) capacity, undue influence, duress/fraud, and improper execution.
For this challenge to be successful, you must prove the testator did not understand the nature and value of their assets and their natural heirs. It is not enough to merely prove the testator suffered from some form of cognitive impairment (such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s) or was heavily medicated at the time they signed their will. Rather, medical records establishing the extent of the testator’s cognitive deficiency close in time to the signing of the will, coupled with expert medical testimony, is often required to prove lack of testamentary capacity.
Undue influence occurs when the testator is unlawfully manipulated into changing their will in a manner they would not have otherwise done. The manipulator is typically a person who is in a position of power (such as a caretaker), and the testator is often vulnerable due to an impaired mental state, advanced age or under a disability. Because this manipulation often occurs outside the presence of others, it is often difficult to prove with direct evidence. Circumstantial evidence, such as the manipulator isolating the testator from friends and family, bringing the testator to a new lawyer or multiple lawyers to get the will signed, signs of potential elder abuse, are all potential signs that undue influence is being exerted. The terms of the new will can also be strong evidence of undue influence. For instance, a will that is the product of undue influence will often depart significantly from the testator’s prior estate plan and/or the manipulator receives a substantial benefit to the detriment of the testator’s natural beneficiaries (relatives and friends). On the other hand, where the testator has made several wills that are consistent with each other, undue influence will be much more difficult to prove.
Fraud generally involves a forged signature of the testator, or the testator being tricked into signing the document not realizing they were signing a will. Fraud could also involve pages of the will being switched or the will otherwise being altered. If staples binding the will are removed, for example, the will could be invalidated based on the potential for fraud.
On the other hand, duress usually involves the threat or actual physical force to make the testator sign a will. While they are similar in certain respects, duress is different than undue influence. Undue influence involves manipulation and more subtle pressure placed on the testator. Duress is overt pressure, force, or threats.
A will must be executed in a certain manner to be valid in New York State. The first requirement is that the will must be signed at the end of the document by the testator. If the testator is unable to sign due to a physical disability, another person can sign for them at their express direction. There must be two witnesses physically who are present, and the testator must communicate to those witnesses that they are there to witness the signing of his/her will. The witnesses should be “disinterested,” meaning that they should not be beneficiaries under the will and should not be the named executor. A will executed without these formalities will likely be rejected by the Surrogate’s Court.
If you are looking for additional information in deciding whether to contest a will or other estate administration questions, please feel free to set up a consultation with Ari Bauer, Esq. by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (845) 569-4347.