Can I contest a Will?
Was the person who signed the Will competent to do so, or unduly influenced in the choice of beneficiaries and asset dispositions?
Property distribution upon the death of a loved one can be straightforward based on the clear terms of a Will or Trust, and the beneficiary designations for life insurance and retirement accounts. But instead of an uncontested estate, disappointed family members, potential heirs, or creditors may question unexpected and unexplained beneficiary designations, wealth transfers, or the suspicious circumstances under which a decedent signed critical documents.
MCCM’s estate and trust litigation team has successfully resolved dozens of cases both in and out of court because of our thorough factual investigation and deep knowledge of the legal principles to be applied to each unique situation. Our goal in every case is to obtain and provide for our clients a clear understanding of “what happened and why”, followed by a fair and just resolution.
Lexicon of Terms
Decedent – the person who has died, leaving an Estate to be administered and distributed. When the Decedent has left a Will, he or she is also referred to as the Testator.
Grantor – the person who created a Trust as the mechanism for the distribution of assets, either during life, or upon death.
Beneficiaries – the persons designated to receive a portion of an Estate, a distribution from a Trust, or the proceeds of life insurance, retirement or investment accounts. Beneficiaries who are to receive a specific amount under the terms of a Will may also be referred to as Legatees.
Surrogate’s Court – in New York, the specialized court in each county which handles estate proceedings and disputes, supervised and overseen by the Surrogate, a judge elected to that position.
Executor or Administrator – the individual(s) or bank that is responsible for marshalling and distributing the assets of an Estate. An Executor is the person named in a Will by the Testator to fulfill this role. Where there is no Will, the person appointed by the Surrogate at the request of the family to serve this function is called the Administrator of the Estate.
Intestacy and Intestate Estate – where a Decedent leaves assets but no Will, he has died Intestate, leaving an Intestate Estate. In these situations, New York provides rules on how the Intestate Estate is distributed among the next of kin who survive the Decedent. The assets do not simply “go to the State.”
Trustee – the individual(s) or bank trust department designated by the Grantor of a Trust, or the Testator of a Will to hold, manage, and distribute the Trust assets.
Power of Attorney – this is the legal document by which a person names another individual or entity to act on his behalf with respect to some or all matters, typically when they are physically or mentally incapable of doing so on their own. The person so designated to act is the Agent – but often is referred to as the POA.
Fiduciary – any person or institution serving as an Executor, Trustee, or Agent under a POA. A Fiduciary carries obligations and responsibilities to act only in and for the best interests of the Beneficiaries of the Estate or Trust, or the person for whom the Agent is acting.
Do I have grounds to challenge a Will?
The reasons and possibilities for disputes in this arena are endless – and vary in complexity and significance. Here is a sampling of some of the many situations that our estate, trust and fiduciary dispute team attorneys have dealt with and resolved.
- At the time Grandpa made his Will, he was suffering from dementia, did not know what his assets were, and could not recall the names of his family members. The Will he made left out some of his children, and was contested by them based on the Testator’s lack of capacity to make the Will.
- In the months years leading up to Grandma’s death, one daughter who lived in the same town got particularly close to her. This daughter was the only one named in Grandma’s Will, disappointing the other siblings, who decided to contest the Will based on undue influence by the daughter.
- When the Administrator of an Estate finally submitted her accounting of Estate assets, there was no mention of the sports memorabilia collection that had been the Decedent Uncle’s passion. The beneficiaries of the Estate contested the accounting, forcing the Administrator to explain the missing assets.
- A middle aged single woman died without leaving a Will following an extended battle with cancer. Her ex-husband and new significant other both cared for her during her decline. Her IRA, containing substantial funds, designated the ex-husband as the beneficiary. Under the laws of Intestacy, any probate assets go to her elderly parents – who had significant health issues. Does her significant other get nothing? Do the medical providers with outstanding bills get paid as creditors? By whom and with what assets?
- Mother, against the advice of her attorney, named all three of her adult children as joint Agents under her POA. When Mother suffered a stroke and was hospitalized with little hope of returning to independent living, her three children needed to make decisions for her about selling her home, and disposing of no longer needed personal property. But the three could not agree about who to use as a realtor, how much to list the house for, or who Mother’s jewelry should go to. Who prevails with respect to contested decisions?
- The Trustee of a substantial trust invested nearly all of the Trust’s assets in the common stock of a single company for whom the Grantor had worked for his entire career. The company fell on hard times as the economy changed, reducing the stock to a fraction of its former value. The beneficiaries sued the Trustee for breach of fiduciary duty in mismanaging the Trust assets.