The estate litigation attorneys at Jones, Gregg, Creehan & Gerace represent clients throughout the Greater Pittsburgh Region in will contests. Whether you have questions about the validity of a will or need assistance defending a will contest, we can help.
Our practice is dedicated to helping clients design well-conceived estate plans to ensure that their assets and loved ones are protected. At the same time, we know that disputes over wills and trusts are not uncommon.
Although we recommend clients work to resolve disputes through negotiated settlements, we are fully prepared to litigate will contests when necessary. We have a proven history of protecting the rights of estate planners, executors, and beneficiaries, both in and out of the courtroom. Contact our office today to speak with an experienced will contest attorney.
What are the grounds for a will contest in Pennsylvania?
To bring a will contest, it is necessary to have “standing.” This means that the individual challenging the will must have a legitimate interest in the estate, such as being a beneficiary of the will, an heir of the decedent, or anyone who stands to inherit under the will. You should know that being dissatisfied with the distribution plan under the will is generally not grounds for a will contest.
Under Pennsylvania law, a will can only be challenged for the following reasons:
- Improper execution — A will must be written and signed by the person making it (the testator). If the testator is unable to sign, a will can be signed by another individual in the testator’s presence at his or her discretion. Unlike many states, a will need not be witnessed in Pennsylvania, however, it is common for a will to be signed by two witnesses, which can help to support its validity.
- Lack of testamentary capacity — The testator must (1) not be a minor and (2) be of sound mind at the time he or she executes the will. Generally, this means the testator must be aware of the property he or she owns and understand the consequences of making and executing the will.
- Undue influence — A will may be considered invalid when an individual who has control over the testator’s care or finances (e.g. beneficiary, caretaker) influences his or her decision-making when a will is being prepared.
- Fraud — Fraud can occur if the testator is, for example, presented with a legal document and told that it is a power of attorney, rather than a will. Fraud often occurs when the will-maker lacks testamentary capacity.
A will can also be contested when an interested party questions the competency or conduct of the executor. Because an executor is considered a fiduciary, he or she must act in the best interests of the beneficiaries and can be held liable for misconduct. In any event, if a will is successfully contested, the probate court can declare it invalid and direct the estate to be administered according to the intestacy laws of Pennsylvania.
How to Prevent a Will Contest in Western Pennsylvania
Given that a will contest can become a protracted court battle that may jeopardize the estate assets, there are a number of steps you can take to avoid a will contest, including:
Don’t Wait to Plan Your Estate
It is not uncommon for people to put off creating a will until their physical or mental health is in decline, which can lead to a will contest based on a lack of testamentary capacity. This is why it is wise to create your will when you are of sound mind and body so that your judgment cannot subsequently be called into question.
Avoid Undue Influence
When you are consulting with your estate planning attorney, beneficiaries should not be present at those meetings to avoid potential claims of undue influence. In addition, you should discuss the will and explain the distribution plan with your loved ones once the will is in place.
Include a No Contest Clause in the Will
A no contest or “in terrorem” clause can prevent a beneficiary or heir from contesting a will. While the Pennsylvania courts have held that no contest clauses are enforceable, a will contest can be raised if the court finds there is probable cause to challenge its validity (e.g. undue influence, lack of testamentary capacity).
Update Your Will on a Regular Basis
Creating a will is not a once and done arrangement. Your will should be updated periodically so that it is aligned with life’s transitions (e.g. marriage, buying a home, having children, retirement). Our wills attorneys provide ongoing counsel to clients to ensure that their estate plans are up-to-date.
Ultimately, the best way to prevent a will contest is to work with an experienced attorney when planning your estate. Doing so can help you avoid common estate planning mistakes and support the legitimacy of the will.
Contact Our Experienced Pittsburgh Estate Litigation and Will Contest Attorneys
At Jones, Gregg, Creehan & Gerace, we have the skills to pursue and defend estate litigation, even though we prefer to reach negotiated settlements to will contests. When you become our client, you can rest assured we will always put your best interests first. Please contact our office today to set up a consultation.