The probate process in any state can be a time consuming and frustrating process for everyone involved under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, however, the probate process often takes place under circumstances that are less than ideal. If you are involved in the probate of an estate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, and someone challenges the Last Will and Testament submitted to the court for probate, it will have a direct impact on the probate process itself. If you find yourself in this position, you undoubtedly want to know what, exactly, does happen if a Will contest is filed during the probate process in Massachusetts?
Probate Basics – What Is It and Is It Required of All Estates?
When an individual dies, he or she leaves behind an estate that is made up of all assets the decedent owned at the time of death or in which the decedent had any ownership interest. Before those assets can be passed on to the intended beneficiaries or heirs of the estate, the law requires an accounting of those assets. In addition, creditors of the estate must be given the opportunity to file claims against the estate and all state and federal taxes must be paid before assets can be transferred out of the estate. All of this happens during the probate process. Most estates are required to go through formal probate; however, there are small estate alternatives available for estates of minimal value in most states as well.
Testate vs. Intestate Estates
If a decedent left behind a Last Will and Testament, making the estate a “testate estate”, anyone in possession of the document is legally required to submit the document to the appropriate court. Once the court accepts the Will the probate process begins. The terms of that Will are ultimately used to distribute estate assets to the beneficiaries listed in the Will. If the decedent failed to execute a Will prior to his/her death the estate is referred to as an “intestate estate.” In an intestate estate, the state in testate succession laws dictate how the estate assets are distributed at the end of the probate process.
What Is a Will Contest?
Sometimes, the Will submitted to probate is challenged. Referred to as a “Will contest,” a challenge can add months, even years, to the time it takes to probate an estate. Moreover, the entire probate process is effectively paused while the Will contest is litigated because the outcome of the litigation determines how the estate is probated from that point forward. If the Will contest fails, meaning the court finds that the Will submitted to the court is valid, the probate process resumes and the terms of the Will dictate how the estate assets are to be distributed. If, however, the Will contest is successful, meaning the court finds that the Will is invalid, the court will first look for another valid Will (such as a previously executed Will) to use to probate the estate. If no valid Will is found, the state’s intestate succession laws will have to be used to determine how to distribute the estate assets once the probate process comes to an end.
What Happens When a Will Contest Is Filed?
Contrary to what Hollywood (and often Best Selling authors) would have you believe, an heir or potential beneficiary cannot challenge a Will based solely on the fact that he/she is unhappy with the inheritance left to him/her (or lack thereof) in the Will submitted to probate. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the following grounds must be alleged – and eventually proven to be successful – in a Will contest:
- Mistake – this may refer to a mistake in the form of the Will or a mistake by the Testator, such as omitting a child that the Testator intended to include.
- Lack of testamentary capacity – alleges that the Testator lacked the requisite mental capacity to execute a Will
- Fraud – alleges that the Testator was deceived prior to signing the Will.
- Undue influence – alleges that the Testator’s free will was overcome by someone who coerced, or influenced, the Testator.
For more information, please join us for one of our upcoming FREE seminars. If you have additional questions or concerns regarding how a Will contest will impact the Massachusetts probate process, contact the experienced Massachusetts estate planning attorneys at DeBruyckere Law Offices by calling (603) 894-4141 or (978) 969-0331 to schedule an appointment.