Contesting a Will in Pennsylvania
When a loved one dies, it can come as a shock. Learning you have been left out of that person’s will, or are set to receive less than you expect, can be just as hard. Find out your options to contest a will in Pennsylvania and how the attorneys at Berman & Associates can help you honor your loved one’s true wishes.
Who Can Contest a Will?
To contest a will in Pennsylvania you must have been aggrieved by it. Most often, this means that you have been left out of the probated will, would receive less than under a prior version, or less than under the Pennsylvania intestacy laws -- which apply when there is no will.
Special Rules for Spouses
The person married to the testator (the deceased person who wrote the will) has the right to receive his or her “elective share” of the deceased’s property. This isn’t exactly a will challenge, but it can affect what is left for other beneficiaries.
How to Contest a Will in PA
When you have reason to doubt the validity of a person’s will, it creates a race to the courthouse. If you file your will contest paperwork -- called a Caveat -- with the County Office of the Register of Wills before the would-be personal representative or executor registers the will, the Caveat will prevent the will from being probated until you are given a hearing on your will contest claims.
If the personal representative gets to the Register of Wills first, the staff there will review the document to make sure it is:
- A written document
- Signed at the end by the testator (or by another at his or her expressed direction)
- In the presence of 2 witnesses, who sign their names in the testator’s presence
If the will appears valid, the Register of Wills will accept the will as valid and issue Letters Testamentary to the person it named as personal representative to administer the estate. Once they are issued, to contest the will, you will need to file an Appeal from Probate in the County Orphan’s Court.
Will Contest Grounds
Whether you are contesting a will through a Caveat or an Appeal from Probate, you must state the reason you believe the will is invalid. It isn’t enough that the will is unfair. Instead, you and the experienced probate attorneys at Berman & Associates must establish one of the following will contest grounds.
Lack of Capacity
A testator must have been of “sound mind” at the time he or she signed the will. This means he or she generally understands what is in the estate, who would be the natural recipients of the assets, and what he or she wants done with them. Age or memory loss won’t necessarily prove lack of capacity for a will challenge. However, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, or some mental illnesses can render the will invalid.
If you think someone convinced your loved one to give them more than their fair share under a will, you may be able to challenge the will for undue influence by showing:
- The testator had a weakened intellect (confused, forgetful, or disoriented) at the time
- The influencer had a confidential relationship with the testator
- That influencer received a substantial benefit under the will
Once you demonstrate these three things, the proponent of the will must demonstrate that it was entered freely, voluntarily, and with a clear understanding of the effect of the transaction.
If someone deceived the testator or coerced him or her into signing a new will, you can contest the will on the basis of fraud. Fraud takes many forms, but generally, you and your probate attorney will need to prove:
- The influencer said or inferred something false (directly or by omission)
- The testator believed and relied on the false statement to his or her disadvantage
- The testator would not have signed the will as written had he or she known the truth
Proving fraud in a will contest case is often challenging because the fraudulent acts often happened years earlier, in secret. Work with an experienced probate attorney to develop your case.
If you believe the testator wasn’t the one who signed the will (or directed it to be signed), you may be able to prove it is a forgery. Pennsylvania will contest law also applies if the signature is genuine, but the contents of the will preceding it were fabricated or forged, such as when someone added a page to an otherwise valid document.
A testator can revoke a will any time before his or her death, by:
- Signing a new will or a “codicil” amending the existing will
- Signing and executing a separate document declaring the will invalid
- Doing something to destroy the will document itself such as burning, tearing, or crossing it out
If a will is revoked, it is no longer valid.
Sometimes a testator with certain illnesses will leave assets to someone long dead at the time, or act on some figment of imagination. A will based on this kind of insane delusion is invalid.
When Must You Appeal the Probate of a Will?
You must act quickly to challenge a will and win. A Caveat must be filed before the will is probated. Any Appeal of Probate must be filed within one year of the Register of Wills’ decision to probate the document.
Get Help Contesting a Will from Lawyers with Experience
It can be hard to separate your grief and hurt from the objective issues surrounding a will contest. At Berman & Associates, our estate administration team can help you review the circumstances of the will signing, and act quickly to preserve your rights as an heir or beneficiary. We want to make it easier for you and your family to honor your loved one’s true wishes. We welcome you to contact us to schedule a consultation with an experienced Pennsylvania probate attorney, so that we can start working for you and your family.