Sometimes questions arise involving the wills of family members. Breakdowns in communication may cause these situations. In other cases, legitimate problems may exist with the estate plan of the deceased. When parties submit problematic wills to probate court, family members may attempt to contest the will.
Will contests are complex lawsuits. In order to succeed, those filing the lawsuit must convince a court or a jury to set aside the will. Courts will toss out wills for only a few reasons in Ohio. More importantly, these reasons must be demonstrated and presented in court in a certain matter. Because of this, families should consider hiring attorneys that know how to contest wills. Our firm not only represents those prosecuting will contests, but also estates defending valid wills.
Who May Contest Wills
Ohio law does not allow anyone to contest a will. Only people with proper standing may contest them. In Ohio, standing means the authority to bring a lawsuit. For will contests, standing means someone who has a financial stake in whether or not probate court admits the will. This means that if the court admits the will, they would likely receive less money than if it was not admitted.
One example of a person with standing is the next of kin of the deceased. This is particularly true if the will does not mention them or specifically disinherits them. In these cases, if the wills did not exist, they would be entitled to a portion of the estate. Therefore, contesting the will would allow them to cure this possible injury.
Family members may also contest wills if they receive a lower percentage of the estate than similarly situated relatives. These relatives are considered being in the same class. For example, if one son receives a smaller share than his two brothers, he can file a will contest. He then would have to demonstrate why the court should not admit the will.
If the will admitted to probate cancels a previous will, those named in the previous will may contest it. In these circumstances, they also must first show standing by showing their share decreased as a result of the new will. Feeling slighted is not enough to contest a will, however; grounds are still needed.
Family members must file will contests quickly. A family member has three months to file a complaint to contest a will after the will was submitted to court. This time clock may start earlier if the family member signed a waiver of notice of submission.
Probate courts rarely offer extensions to file will contest complaints. Ohio law does allow individuals with bona-fide disabilities another three months to file a will contest. Because of this, a will contest filing does not have to be perfect, but sufficient enough to allege the allegations. In some instances, courts may allow families leave to amend their will contest complaint.
People filing will contests must also pay a filing fee at the time they submit their complaint. If they do not do this, probate court will admit it. In addition to the filing fee, the filer must also serve all the correct parties to the will contest lawsuit.
Reasons to Contest a Will
Ohio law requires wills to follow certain guidelines. If the wills do not follow these rules, courts will consider them invalid. Specifically, a will must be executed by someone over the age of eighteen, of sound mind and without undue influence. Additionally, two disinterested witnesses must sign the will. If the will fails any of these requirements, courts will not accept their administration.
Family members may contest a will if the person executing it has an unsound mind. While “unsound mind” may seem vague, courts provide specific definitions of what this entails. Someone with an unsound mind lacks “testamentary capacity.” This means they are incapable of having the mental makeup of executing a valid will.
Testamentary capacity only involves the moment the person signs the will. For example, if a party contesting will demonstrates the person has Alzheimer’s Disease, it may not be enough to win the case. This is because people may go in and out of lucid moments under this or any other disease. Whereas if medical records indicate the person was comatose the entire day it was signed, courts may find lack of capacity. Moreover, if a witness identifies that the person who signed the will was not lucid, courts may not accept the will.
Parties demonstrate an unsound mind if evidence exists that the person signing the will did not know who they were at the time of execution. If a medical disease advanced to the point of this confusion, courts will not admit the will.
In addition to not knowing who they are, an individual lacks capacity if they cannot identify their heirs. If a disease prevents them from knowing all their family members who are interested parties, the will may be contested. Additionally, the person signing the will must also be capable to understand the property they own and know what the words in the will mean. If the testator cannot describe what the will is doing, then, individuals may successfully contest it.
Undue Influence from Outsiders
The issue of undue influence can complicate a will contest. This is because courts closely examine the source of the influence and its nature. In many circumstances, what family members consider as undue may be acceptable simply because other family members instigated it. Because of this, parties should consult attorneys before specifying the nature of the undue influence.
Perhaps the most blatant example of undue influence comes from someone defrauding the person signing the will. In Ohio, fraud is when someone intentionally misrepresents a material fact that someone else relies on. Courts take fraud allegations seriously. This means that someone alleging fraud must state the specific acts that created the fraud.
Fraud is not the only cause of undue influence. If the person signing the will was under duress at the time of signature, the will has grounds for contesting. Duress means the will signer must be susceptible to outside pressure that caused the person signing the will. For example, if someone threatens the safety of the signer, family members may contest the will.
Manipulation or trickery constitutes undue influence. For example, courts will consider someone else swapping out pages to be trickery. This is why most wills include initials on every page. Additionally, manipulation, particularly for vulnerable people, is a common form of undue influence.
While manipulation by non-family members may be easy to demonstrate, it is harder for family members. This is because courts often do not fully dive into intricacies of family relationships. This can mean that family members caring for will makers may more easily inherit larger shares.
A person may submit a will to probate court before they pass away. If this occurs, the courts will examine the will for procedural defects. When this happens, contesting the will for procedural defects will not be an option. However, this is still a possible avenue if probate courts do not receive the will prior to death.
A procedural defect can involve the will not being properly signed, witnessed, or written before the death of the testator. A will must be signed by two competent witnesses. These witnesses must not be interested. A witness must not be related to the testator or named as a potential beneficiary under the will. In most instances, lawyers and staff drafting a will may be witnesses. Ohio wills do not need a notary signature.
Fake or Forgery
Ohio courts allow will contests for fake or forged wills. When this occurs, the person contesting the will likely needs to hire expert witnesses that can demonstrate a forgery. These witnesses may be expensive and their results may ultimately become inconclusive. Because of this, individuals should be almost certain in their own belief that a will is forged before pursuing this avenue if they are hesitant when it comes to incurring legal expenses.
Parties can amend wills by signing codicils. A codicil is an amendment to a will. Other instances, people write new wills after life events. Moreover, people may revoke wills after signing it. A will contest may occur after discovering the testator revoked the will. Other times, a family member may discover a new will revoking the old one.
Ohio generally upholds no-contest clauses in wills. If a person files a will contest with a no-contest clause, courts may permanently shut out them if they lose. Of course, this may not mean much to a family member already shut out of a will. However, if family members are arguing over percentages, it may not make sense to contest the will. Because of the stakes associated with wills that have no-contest clauses, it is crucial to examine the submitted will prior to contesting it.
Contesting a Will
Once someone identifies themselves as someone with standing and grounds to file a will contest, the next step is preparing a lawsuit. Properly drafting the complaint is essential. If you improperly draft the complaint, courts may dismiss it.
You must file a will contest in the county probate court of the estate. Probate courts make filing fees due when you present the lawsuit to court. You are also able to demand a jury to hear the will contest in Ohio; but you must do so before your time limit is up. Filing the lawsuit requires you to inform all the named parties of the estate through formal service. You must state in the lawsuit exactly why you are contesting the will.
Successful Will Contests
A will contest will not create a new will. This is because the deceased cannot adequately state his desires. If a previous will existed before the contest, the estate will revert back to the previous will. When the invalidated will is a codicil, the will reverts back to the previous version.
When the only will in existence is successfully contested, the court will administer the estate according to the default Ohio rules. This means the court will examine the family members for relatives and distribute the estate based on the statutes of descent and distribution.
Hiring a Lawyer
Will contests are complex and fact-intensive. Hiring experts make these lawsuits even more complex. In order to admit these facts into evidence, parties need to understand the rules of evidence and civil procedure in Ohio. If they do not, they may not be able to fully present their case. This is why hiring a lawyer experienced in probate court is necessary to defend or file will contests. A will contest turns a stressful situation into an incredibly trying one. Because of this, hiring a lawyer to do the heavy lifting can help.