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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Preventing a Will Contest & Preserving Peace in the Family

The purpose of writing a Last Will and Testament is to make sure that you – and not an anonymous probate court judge – have control over the distribution of your property after your death.  If one or more family members disputes the instructions in your Will, however, then it is possible  that a probate court judge may decide how your assets will be distributed.

Protect yourself, your family members and your last wishes by taking steps to prevent a Will contest after your death.  Will contests (this is the legal term used to describe a family member’s challenge to the contents of a will) can be based on one or more of these claims:

  • The Will was not properly executed
  • The Willmaker (Testator or Testatrix) was under improper or undue influence from a beneficiary
  • The Willmaker or another person committed fraud
  • The Willmaker lacked the mental capacity to make the will

There are a number of steps that you can take to help prevent will contests based on any of those claims.  It is important to remember, though, that different states have different laws regarding wills and probate.  What is advisable in one state may be inadvisable in another, which is why the first suggestion for preventing a will contest is:

  1. Obtain qualified legal advice regarding your estate plan.  Estate planning has become a popular “do it yourself” legal task, but you should at least consider having your will reviewed – if not written – by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  Writing your will with the help of an estate planning attorney will also ensure that your will is a properly executed and valid legal document.
     
  2. Don’t delay estate planning.  Plan your estate while you are in good health – “of sound mind and body.”  If you create your will while your physical or mental health is failing, your will becomes potentially vulnerable to claims that it is invalid due to your lack of mental capacity.
     
  3. Consider a no-contest clause.  A no-contest clause (also called an in terrorem clause) in a Last Will and Testament disinherits anyone who contests the will.  Keep in mind, though, that no-contest clauses are valid in some states but not in others.
     
  4. Consider using trusts.  Trusts are becoming more widely used in estate planning , and are useful for various situations.  A will is a public document once it is filed in probate court, and the public nature of the document can give rise to disputes and will contests.  In contrast, a revocable living trust is a personal and private document that does not have to be filed as a public record.  Furthermore, lifetime trusts can be used to provide financially for “troublesome” beneficiaries who might otherwise spend through their inheritance.  Lifetime trusts are flexible and can link financial inheritance to the accomplishment of goals that you set forth in the trust documents.
     
  5. Write your will independently.  To avoid claims of undue influence after your death, make sure you write your will in circumstances that are clearly free from interference by family members or other beneficiaries.  Do not have beneficiaries serve as witnesses, and consider not allowing beneficiaries to attend your meetings with your estate planning attorney.  This is especially important if you are under the care of a family member who is also a beneficiary and you think other family members might try to say you were influenced by the beneficiary who attended the meeting.
     
  6. Be of sound mind and body.  At the time you write and sign your will, you can ask your physician to perform a physical examination and certify that you are mentally competent to execute your will.  Another option is for your attorney to ask you a series of questions before you sign your will and document that the questions were asked and answered.
     
  7. Answer your family’s questions.  Consider sharing your intentions with your family and other beneficiaries.  If you explain the reasons for the decisions you made regarding bequests, you may help prevent will contests after your death.  Instead or in addition, you may write a letter to your beneficiaries that will be read at the same time your will is read.
     
  8. Keep your will dust-free.  Once your Last Will and Testament and other estate planning documents are complete, don’t just file and forget them.  Review your will with an attorney at least once every couple of years and make any necessary changes in a timely manner.

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