By Nancy Burner, Esq.
In order for a person to contest a last will and testament (“will”) in New York, he or she must have legal grounds; a reason based in the law that the will is invalid and should not be admitted to probate.
Admitting a will to probate means that the executor named in the will is appointed by the Surrogate’s Court. The executor then distributes the decedent’s assets as dictated by the will. The most common grounds for challenging a will are improper execution, lack of testamentary capacity, and undue influence.
Having grounds for contesting a will takes more than simply disliking the terms of the will or being unhappy with its distribution.
A will must be properly executed to be valid. The requirements for the proper execution of a will are as follows: (1) the will must be signed at the end thereof, (2) the will must have been signed in the presence of two witnesses, (3) the decedent must have declared the document to be his or her will, and (4) the witnesses must have signed the will as witnesses at the request of the deceased.
When an attorney supervises the execution, the will is entitled to a presumption that it was properly executed — known as the presumption of due execution. Wills prepared from online DIY services and executed without an attorney do not enjoy this presumption.
The decedent must have also possessed testamentary capacity when he or she signed the will. The Surrogate’s Court looks at the following three factors to determine whether the decedent had the requisite capacity to sign a will: (1) the decedent understood the nature and consequences of executing a will, (2) the decedent knew the nature and extent of his or her property, and (3) the decedent knew the natural objects of his or her bounty and his or her relations with them.
If a will is the product of undue influence, it will not be admitted to probate. A will may be invalidated on the ground of undue influence if there was: (1) motive, (2) opportunity, and (3) the actual exercise of undue influence. The influence exercised must rise to a level of coercion that restrains the free will and independent action in a forceful way. The inquiry into whether a will is a product of undue influence is fact specific and involves the examination of the decedent and his or her circumstances, the will and its procurement, and the person alleged to have exercised the undue influence.
If it is determined that any of these grounds exist, then the Surrogate’s Court would refuse to admit the will to probate. The result of the denial of probate would be that the decedent’s next of kin would inherit the estate under the laws of intestacy or the beneficiaries of the decedent’s prior will would inherit.
It is difficult — but not impossible — to contest a will. The requirements of due execution and testamentary capacity are easily achieved by presumptions that are obtained through attorney supervised will signings. Undue influence is not easily demonstrated and generally takes a thorough investigation to uncover significant facts. These matters are usually complicated both factually and procedurally, and the assistance of an experienced estate litigation attorney is essential.
Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.