Most New Yorkers view the signature on a relative’s will as the deceased person’s last works on how their assets will be distributed. In some cases, however, one or more prospective heirs are displeased by the terms in the will.
Their only remedy is commencing a lawsuit challenging the will’s validity. Such lawsuits are usually called “will contests.”
Will contests are controlled by New York statutes
The will contest must be filed in the county in which the decedent’s will was admitted to probate. Only a person who is named in the will or who has a possible interest in the decedent’s assets may file such a case. The grounds for invalidating a will or a particular clause of a will are set forth in the statutes.
Grounds for invalidating a will can include several reasons.
If the decedent lacked the mental capacity for understanding the legal effect of the will, that person may not have possessed the required mental capacity for making a valid will. Evidence to support this claim is often provided by health care professionals who may have treated the decedent for any one of several mental declines, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
If the plaintiff proves general lack of mental capacity, the will is totally invalidated, and the estate will be treated as if the decedent died without a will. If the decedent failed to sign the will, or if the will was not witnessed as required by statute, all bequests are void, and the assets will be distributed as if the decedent had left no will.
Undue influence is a somewhat more common ground for challenging the will.
An argument of undue influence rests on the assertion that someone who had a close relationship with the decedent used that relationship to improperly convince the decedent to make one or more bequests that would not have been made but for the improper influence.
Fraud is also a ground for challenging a will or a specific bequest. If an heir made a misrepresentation of a material fact to influence a bequest, that bequest will be voided by the court. The fraud must consist of a statement made to the testator before the will is executed and must rest upon a false statement of material fact, such as a misrepresentation of misconduct on the part of another heir.
Duress may also lead to the invalidation of a specific bequest. Duress generally consists of a threat to take certain action that would be adverse to the interests of the testator. The threat must be made before the will is signed.
It is very difficult to successfully argue a will contest. However, these legal actions are sometimes the only way to secure justice and ensure a deceased loved one’s true wishes are honored.