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What are the legal grounds for a will contest?

Wills are important legal documents that enable people to give effect to their wishes after they are deceased and no longer able to make those wishes known. Wills can be used to give personal property to relatives or other beneficiaries--one of the most common uses of wills--or to make charitable donations, establish guardians for minors, and other purposes. Unfortunately, there are situations when relatives believe that a will does not accurately reflect what the deceased would have wanted. In these cases, a person may choose to initiate a will contest.

Wills can be revised during the author's lifetime with relative ease. If someone wants to revise a person's will after that person has died, however, there are specific legal steps that must be taken. It is not often easy to be involved in a will contest, whether from a legal standpoint, a financial standpoint or an emotional standpoint. However, in some cases the stakes are so high and the effects so significant that surviving relatives feel it is necessary or worth the effort.

There are only four possible ways that a person can contest a will and argue that its provisions should not be given effect or should be modified. The first way is undue influence. This is one of the most difficult grounds to prove as it requires showing that someone exerted pressure, or undue influence, on the author of the will in order to convince him or her to write certain provisions or modify the will. Another way to contest a will, which is also difficult, is fraud. If fraud was involved in the creation of the will--for example, if the author did not think he or she was signing a will but instead some other legal document--then the will could be declared invalid.

The last two ways to contest a way are somewhat easier, simply because there will likely be more evidence to support the claim. If someone contests a will because of improper execution, a court can declare the will invalid after it has been shown that the will was not prepared or executed in accordance with the laws of the state where the will was created. Finally, lack of capacity can invalidate a will. This ground requires that the author of the will was not in sound or was mentally incapacitated before the will can be effectively contested.

Source: AARP.org, "Where There's a Will...," Aug. 17, 2011

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