One of the principal reasons for making a will in Pennsylvania is to avoid conflict among potential heirs by resolving all questions about the distribution of assets. Unfortunately, even a carefully drafted will may offend certain family members who thought they would receive a greater share of the deceased person’s assets than provided in the will. The only remedy available to a disgruntled heir under such circumstances is the commencement of an action – called a “will contest” – to have a court declare either the will or a particular section of the will to be invalid. Understanding the grounds used by courts to decide will contests can be useful to anyone contemplating such an action.
All wills in Pennsylvania must comply with certain formal requirements or they will be deemed invalid. The first requirement is that the will must be written; oral bequests cannot be enforced. Second, the will must be signed by the maker. The signature must also be witnessed by two persons over the age of 18. The failure to comply with any of these formal requirements can lead a court to declare the will to be invalid.
Lack of capacity
The person who makes the will must possess sufficient mental capacity at the time of execution of the will to understand the meaning of the will. Sufficient mental capacity means that the person making the will understood what he or she was doing by signing the will and that the will determines who gets the decedent’s property. Proving lack of mental capacity can be very difficult.
Other grounds for a successful challenge
- Undue influence. If the testator was coerced by a potential heir to leave the heir a disproportionate share of the testator’s assets, the will may be declared invalid. Proof of undue influence usually requires evidence that the heir who is alleged to have received a disproportionate share of the estate had a close and mostly confidential relationship with the decedent.
- Fraud. Proof that an heir made a false or misleading statement to the deceased and that the statement influenced the substance of the will can likewise lead to an order declaring the will to be invalid.
Anyone who is concerned about the validity of a will may wish to consult an experienced estate planning attorney for a review of the evidence and an opinion on the likelihood that the will contest will succeed.