In the months after a death, procedures and deadlines are far from the minds of the family. However, a death in the family often leads to legal disputes over the deceased’s property. Hard economic times and the increased availability of internet legal forms have led more people to attempt to draft wills, trusts and powers of attorney without the assistance of a lawyer. As a result, will disputes or contests are on the rise.
Even if the deceased has left a will, disputes can arise as to the will’s validity. To be legally binding, a will must be, among other things, signed by the deceased (the testator) and two uninterested witnesses. In order for the will to be “self-proving” the testator and the witnesses must sign in front of a notary and the will must contain specific language regarding the signing by the testator and the witnesses. Also, the testator must have sufficient mental capacity. A testator must understand that a will is being made and how the will affects his or her property at death, what property the testator owns, and who the beneficiaries are (“the objects of his bounty”). If any of these elements is missing, a court can find the will invalid.
In addition, a will can be deemed invalid if it seems likely that the testator wished to do one thing, but a third person coerced or unduly influenced him or her to do something else. The coercion does not have to be physical, and usually is not. Rather, the typical case of undue influence involves a testator who is otherwise competent, but feeble, and a person in a position of trust—a relative, friend, or spiritual advisor—who takes advantage of the person’s frailty, convincing the testator to change his or her will.
Finally, even if a will is valid, the executor under the will has a duty to the testator’s creditor and beneficiaries under the will to administer the estate appropriately and in accordance with the law. If an executor abuses such power, or favors certain interests over others, then such executor may be personally liable for any harm done.
Whether you are the beneficiary under a will that is being challenged, or your loved one has left a questionable will, it is important that you seek the advice of a qualified Raleigh estate planning attorney. Most will challenges must be filed within three years after the will is probated, and even shorter deadlines must be observed in some cases. Similarly, if an agent under a power of attorney, an executor, or a trustee has acted improperly, the law imposes short deadlines for seeking relief.