When someone dies and leaves behind a will, surviving family members and others with claims to their estate can file the will in a local probate court. During successful probate proceedings, the court validates the will and authorizes a personal representative (usually the executor nominated in the deceased’s will) to manage the estate. However, the probate process allows any interested party to object to the will’s validity or terms by contesting the will.
Contesting a will can be a complex process, as can defending a contested will. But an experienced Arizona estate litigation lawyer can do so on your behalf, protecting your rights and honoring the wishes of your departed loved one. If you are dealing with a contested will case in Arizona, turn to a West Valley Arizona contested will lawyer at Pennington Law, PLLC, for help.
Our firm has provided experienced legal representation to individuals and families throughout the Grand Canyon State for many years. Our team’s dedication to success has earned us numerous accolades and awards, including Best Attorney in Sun City West 2021 from the Daily Independent, Best Probate Attorneys in Surprise, Goodyear, and Peoria by Expertise.com, Litigator of the Year 2021 by the American Institute of Trial Lawyers, and high ratings from Super Lawyers and Best Attorneys of America.
When you turn to us for help with a contested will, you can count on us to work hard to protect your interests. We will take the time to get to know you and understand your unique situation, then develop customized legal solutions to fit your needs.
Contact Pennington Law, PLLC, today for a free initial case review, and let us advocate for you and your family. Our firm serves clients in Sun City West, Buckeye, Peoria, Surprise, and the surrounding communities.
What Is a Contested Will?
A contested will is a will that one or more parties challenge in court during probate. Before the court authorizes a personal representative to administer an estate, it must confirm the will’s validity during a public probate hearing, at which interested parties can challenge the will.
A named beneficiary, a legal heir, or another entity with interest in an estate can challenge specific provisions in a will or the validity or enforceability of the entire will. Interested parties contest a will by presenting certain arguments and evidence to the court during probate. Courts typically hold formal hearings if an interested party contests a will.
Reasons for Contesting a Will
Some of the most common reasons why a beneficiary or heir might contest a will include the following:
- Lack of Mental Capacity – For a will to be valid, the subject of the will (testator) must have testamentary capacity when they sign the will. Someone has testamentary capacity if they have the right to prepare a will and understand the nature of what they are doing while creating it. In other words, testamentary capacity is the legal and mental capacity to make a valid will. A family member seeking to contest a decedent’s will or enforce a prior version of a will could argue that the decedent lacked mental capacity.
- Coercion – A beneficiary or heir could also challenge a will by alleging that someone coerced the testator into signing the document. Coercion means persuading someone to do something through physical force, intimidation, or threats.
- Fraud – A court might invalidate all or part of a will if someone can prove that another party tricked the testator into signing the will. For example, fraud might have occurred if somebody misled a testator into believing that the terms of an inadequate will reflected their wishes.
- Forgery – Someone could also contest a will by alleging that someone forged the testator’s signature or altered the contents of a will after the testator signed it.
- Undue Influence – A person could contest a will by asserting that another party used emotional manipulation, trickery, or other forms of undue influence to force a testator to sign or change a will against their wishes. Claims of undue influence frequently arise in cases where a family member or caretaker uses their position of trust and power to force or deceive the testator into leaving them a larger share of the estate.
- Defective Execution or Execution Errors – A court may find a will unenforceable if the testator fails to follow specific legal requirements. Common mistakes that lead to execution errors include failing to have the will notarized and not having witnesses present for the testator’s signing.
- Multiple Wills – When a person makes more than one will during their lifetime, each successive will effectively revokes prior wills. However, when family members have different copies of a testator’s will, sometimes they fight to prove which document is the decedent’s valid last will.
- The Terms Are Too Vague to Give Proper Guidance – In some contested will cases, family members dispute the effect of a will’s terms due to a lack of clarity. Beneficiaries commonly disagree over how a will directs the distribution of assets, with different heirs claiming that the will entitles them to a specific portion of the estate.
- The Will Does Not Cover All Assets – Beneficiaries might also contest a will if it does not specify what should happen to all the decedent’s assets. This situation could occur if a testator overlooks assets when drafting their will or fails to update the will after acquiring assets, such as real estate or corporate stock. Including a residuary clause in a will can prevent these disputes by eliminating the need to bequeath each asset specifically.
- The Will Was Not Amended Following a Divorce – Family members sometimes get into legal disputes when a testator fails to amend their will following a divorce, and the will bequeaths property to the decedent’s ex-spouse. The ex-spouse might demand their inheritance under the will, while the decedent’s current family members and beneficiaries might argue that the will did not reflect the decedent’s final intentions.
- The Will Disinherits a Current Spouse – Arizona’s community property laws entitle surviving spouses to a portion of a decedent’s estate. This right can persist even if the decedent expressly disinherits their spouse in the will, so this type of scenario can easily lead to a contested will.
Your Rights for Contesting a Will
When someone presents a will to the court for probate, you have the right to receive notice of the probate hearing as a named beneficiary or executor, a creditor, a legal heir (such as a spouse or child), or someone with a legal interest in the estate. You could also claim an interest in an estate if a prior version of the decedent’s will named you as a beneficiary, even if the current version omits you. Once you receive notice of probate, you can file an objection with the court.
How You Can Contest a Will
You can contest a will by filing an objection with the court after receiving notice of probate. When contesting a will, you must state the grounds for your complaint, such as undue influence or forgery. Once you submit your objection, the court will likely schedule a formal hearing to consider it. You can present evidence and witness testimony at the hearing to prove your grounds for contesting the will.
Evidence Needed to Contest a Will
The evidence you would need to contest a will depends on the grounds for your challenge. For claims of lack of capacity, common evidence includes:
- Medical or mental health records
- Expert testimony from medical or mental health professionals
- Court orders declaring the testator incapacitated or incompetent
For claims of coercion or undue influence, evidence might include:
- Testimony from family members, friends, or the decedent’s legal counsel
- The decedent’s diaries, journals, or other written materials from around the time they signed the suspicious will that reflect their state of mind or intentions
- Prior versions of the decedent’s will that show significant deviations from the current version
If you have a contested will claim based on forgery, you might prove your case with evidence such as:
- Verified copies of the decedent’s signature or handwriting samples
- Testimony from a handwriting analysis expert
- Forensic analysis of the document showing proof of alteration
- Duplicate copies of the contested will
Ways to Prove a Will Is Not Valid
Among the ways you could contest the validity of a will or its provisions include the following:
- Presenting testimony from the testator’s attorney, who can describe any discussions they had with the testator about their wishes or intentions. Their attorney can also testify about anything that happened after the testator executed the will.
- Presenting testimony from the witnesses who saw the testator sign the will. Witnesses could also describe what happened when the testator executed the will.
- Submitting a superseding version of the will that bears the decedent’s signature and is dated after the version of the will presented for probate
- Presenting third-party testimony, such as testimony from friends and neighbors, regarding the nature of the decedent’s relationships with family members or beneficiaries
Contact an Arizona Contested Will Attorney Today
A contested will case can quickly become complex, and handling it might seem overwhelming. Get the legal help you need to defend your rights and interests. Contact Pennington Law, PLLC, today for a free, no-obligation consultation with an Arizona contested will lawyer.