How An Heir Or Beneficiary Can Contest A Will In Probate Court

Probate is the field of law that determines how an estate must be divided. Each state has its own laws and statutes requirements to determine if and how an estate must be probated. The probate court will supervise the process when a deceased person (a decedent) leaves assets to distribute, such as bank accounts, real estate, and financial investments with or without a will. The probate court provides the final ruling on the division and distribution of assets to beneficiaries.

In many cases, the decedent has established documentation, which contains instructions on how their assets should be distributed after death and designates in such documents who oversees implementing this process.  This involves collecting the deceased’s assets to pay any remaining liabilities on their estate and distributing the assets to beneficiaries. Where a decedent fails to establish such documents while alive, State law and the probate courts will dictate how the estate is administered and to whom assets get distributed to.

Probate With a Will 

A deceased person with a Will is known as a testator and he or she is deemed to have died “testate.” When a testator dies, the person designated as the executor under the Will is responsible for initiating the probate process. The probate process for a testate estate includes distributing the decedent’s assets according to the Will.

Probate Without a Will 

When a person dies without a Will, a person is to have died intestate. An intestate estate can also occur when a written Will is presented to the probate court and the probate court has been deemed the Will to be invalid. The probate process for an intestate estate includes distributing the decedent’s assets according to State law.

What Is The Probate Process?

A probate court proceeding begins with the appointment of an administrator or executor to oversee the estate of the deceased person. Such personal is typically called the “personal representative.”  The personal representative receives all legal claims against the estate and paying off the outstanding debts. Also, the personal representative is tasked with locating any legal heirs of the deceased, including surviving spouses, children, and parents. Then the probate court will assess what assets need to be distributed among the legal heirs and how to distribute them.

The probate process can take a long time to finalize and can become costly, therefore it is important to know whether a probate is required following the death of an individual. The more complex or contested the estate is the more time it will take to settle and distribute the assets. Furthermore, the proceedings of probate court are publicly recorded so avoiding probate would ensure that all settlements are done privately.

When Can An Heir Or Beneficiary Contest the Will?

Once a Will is filed with the probate court, an heir of the filed Will or an heir listed in another version of a Will executed by the testator has the ability to file a dispute or as we call “contested”. They may do so if they believe the filed Will is not truthfully representative of the decedent’s wishes.

There are several instances where a filed Will can be contested, including:

  • Undue Influence: When a testator was incapacitated, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable, a beneficiary may have grounds to contest a Will. A Will may be contested if the beneficiary suspects the testator was taken advantage of while drafting the Will.
  • Mental Capacity: If a beneficiary believes the testator was not of sound mind due to illness, substance abuse, or a mental health disorder, they can contest a Will. Proof that the testator had the capacity to create a legally binding document must be provided for the Will to stand.
  • Provision Violation: In California, a Will must be signed by the testator in front of two witnesses who also sign the document. Neither witness is allowed to be named as a beneficiary in the Will. If any of these conditions are violated, the validity of a Will can be called into question.
  • Multiple Versions of a Will: There are cases when a testator has drafted more than one Will to update their estate plan. Most often, the probate court considers the new document as the legal document, and the old document is deemed invalid.
  • Non-compliance with legal formalities: In California a Will must be in writing, signed by the testator, and signed by two witnesses. Failure to meet all of these requirements can lead to legal issues during the probate process.
  • Beneficiaries who may be missing or uncooperative: California has specific notice procedures that must be followed for beneficiaries who are missing or are uncooperative in the probate process.

Depending on what has taken place already with the probate court will dictate how much time an heir or beneficiary has to contest a Will.  If this is something you are considering, you should reach out to counsel as soon as possible to make sure you do not miss any deadline to file a Will contest.

What Should You Do?

Consider reaching out to a Trusts and Estates and/or Probate Attorney such as those at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. We are always thinking of ways that our clients can save on taxes, trusts and estates planning, and probate matters. The tax attorneys at the Law Offices Of Jeffrey B. Kahn, P.C. located in Orange County (Irvine), Los Angeles and elsewhere in California are highly skilled in handling tax and probate matters and can effectively represent at all levels with the IRS and State Tax Agencies including criminal tax investigations and attempted prosecutions, undisclosed foreign bank accounts and other foreign assets, and unreported foreign income. Also, if you are involved in cannabis, check out what our cannabis tax attorney can do for you. Additionally, if you are involved in cryptocurrency, check out what a bitcoin tax attorney can do for you.