Losing a family member or close loved one is typically a time filled with heightened emotions and a deep sense of grief. If you are currently going through such a time, the last thing you may want to think about is the practical or legal ramifications of your loss. There are, however, practical and legal aspects to a death that must be addressed. The most important of those is generally probating the decedent’s estate. If the decedent left behind a Last Will and Testament, the probate process will begin when someone submits that Will to the appropriate probate court. What happens, however, if you question the validity of the Will? Do you have the right to contest the Will in Massachusetts and, if so, how do you get started?
What Is Probate?
When an individual dies, he/she leaves behind assets that make up an estate. Estate assets can include tangible and intangible assets as well as both real and personal property. Basically, anything the decedent owned, or had an ownership interest in, at the time of death become part of the decedent’s estate. Probate is the legal process that handles a decedent’s estate after death. Probate is necessary to ensure that all estate assets are identified, located, valued, and eventually transferred to the intended beneficiaries and/or heirs of the estate. Probate also ensures that creditors of the estate are paid and that any taxes owed by the estate are paid. One of the first steps in the probate process, however, is to authenticate the Last Will and Testament submitted to the court for probate.
What If I Think the Will Isn’t Valid?
If you are a named beneficiary in the Will or a legal heir of the estate you will be notified when the Will is submitted for probate. If you have reason to believe, at that time, that the Will submitted to probate is not valid, you may be able to contest the Will. Claiming that a Will is invalid, however, requires you to allege legal grounds on which the Will could be declared invalid. Simply being unhappy with your inheritance (or lack of inheritance) is not sufficient reason to pursue a Will contest. To pursue a Will contest, you must have the legal standing to do so and you must be able to allege – and ultimately prove – legal grounds on which the Will can be invalidated.
“Standing” is a legal term that essentially mean you have the legal right to initiate legal action. To have standing to pursue a Will contest in Massachusetts you must be considered an “interested” person. An “interested” person is someone who has a legal/financial interest in the outcome and generally includes:
- Beneficiaries under the Will submitted to probate
- Legal heirs of the estate
- Beneficiaries under the terms of a previous or subsequent Will
- Creditors of the estate
In Massachusetts, there are several legal grounds that may be used to allege and prove that a Last Will and Testament is not valid, including:
- Lack of testamentary capacity – a Testator must understand: the purpose of the Will; the nature of his/her assets; and, who the heirs to the estate are.
- Undue influence – the Testator was influenced by someone to make changes to the Will that benefit the individual and those changes would not have been made without the beneficiary’s influence.
- Fraud – that can be a situation where the Testator signed a Will thinking it was something else or any other act that constitutes dishonesty during the drafting or execution of the Will.
- Forgery – the signature is not the Testator’s signature.
- Improper execution – for a Will to be valid it must be executed properly, according to the laws of the state in which it is executed.
- Revocation – this alleges that the Will was revoked by the Testator prior to his/her death.
If you have additional questions or concerns related to the right to contest a Will, contact the experienced Massachusetts estate planning attorneys at DeBruyckere Law Offices by calling (603) 894-4141 or (978) 969-0331 to schedule an appointment.