Challenges to Estate Plans
Listed below are the general grounds upon which one can challenge someone’s estate plan:
- Lack of Capacity: If a person lacks capacity, he or she cannot make a will. Therefore, an estate planning document created by someone lacking capacity is null and void. For this purpose, “capacity” is defined by each state, but is generally seen to require that the person making the will knows (a) the nature of their assets, (b) the identities of their heirs, and (c) the disposition of assets that is made under the estate planning document. Importantly, the person only needs to have capacity at the time the document is signed. So, for example, if there is a person who has “good days” and “bad days”, if the person signs the estate planning document on a good day – when they have capacity to make a will – the will will be valid. Note that if a court has imposed a conservatorship on a person, that person has been found to legally lack capacity – so any estate planning document executed during the period of the conservatorship will generally be null and void.
- Undue Influence: The primary goal of a court in interpreting a decedent’s estate is to enforce the decedent’s intent. If a person can be unduly influenced by another such that the person’s will reflects not their intent but the intent of the undue influencer, the will is invalid. Undue influence is often asserted when the person making the will is old or sick. A presumption of undue influence may arise where (a) a person with a “confidential relationship” with decedent (b) participated in the preparation or signing of the will and (c) that person ended up with an “undue benefit”. Some persons – caregivers and attorneys who prepare the estate plan – are presumed by statute to have exerted undue influence (unless certain exceptions apply).
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