kevin delvecchio 7nozj 4nhu8 unsplash

Disputing a Will: Your Legal Options Explained

By: Shannon McNulty, Attorney, The Village Law Firm

By: Shannon McNulty, Attorney, The Village Law Firm

Shannon's work is sophisticated and reflects her deep knowledge of the laws governing estates, taxation and child guardianship issues. Shannon approaches each client with sensitivity and compassion, understanding that many of the decisions that they will have to make can be difficult.

Learn More About Shannon

Families may dispute wills for a number of different reasons in New York. Perhaps a concerned family member believes that their elderly father was taken advantage of by a manipulative nurse in a long-term care facility. Maybe an ex-wife has somehow inherited the family fortune despite being estranged from a deceased ex-husband. Perhaps the decedent’s children do not want valuable family heirlooms falling into the wrong hands. Whatever the case may be, it is possible to dispute a will in New York. If you wish to approach this legal process, you will need to assess your options and take effective action. 

Valid Reasons for Disputing a Will in New York

You can only dispute a will in certain situations. In New York, these situations are called “grounds for contesting a will.” There are only a few acceptable grounds for disputing a will:

  • Lack of Testamentary Capacity: As people age, they may suffer from a range of mental and physical ailments. These ailments may make them less capable of understanding complex documents like wills. For example, many people develop dementia as they reach an advanced age. When they reach a certain level of cognitive decline, they cannot legally consent to their own wills or sign these documents with any modicum of reliability. However, this is just one example – and there may be a lack of testamentary capacity whenever someone is not of “sound mind.”
  • Undue Influence: As people age, they might also become more vulnerable to manipulation from others. Elderly individuals may be swindled and scammed even if they are free from issues like dementia. If you believe that someone else manipulated your senior into altering their will or creating a new one, you may have the ability to dispute it. For example, a spouse might meet a new “romantic partner” who convinces them to alter their will. 
  • Fraud: Speaking of scams, seniors can be victimized by a range of fraud artists when it comes to estate planning. A nurse might prepare a new will and fraudulently tell a senior patient that it’s a medical consent form. If a senior is tricked into creating a new will in this manner, it can be disputed. 
  • Physical Incapacitation: Although cognitive issues represent one potential form of incapacitation, there are also many physical ailments that can decapacitate a testator. For example, they might be in a coma after a car accident. If a family member puts a pen in their hand and literally forces them to sign a will, it is clearly invalid because the testator was completely incapacitated at the time. 
  • Revocation: Testators may revoke their wills for many reasons. If the will has been revoked, it is no longer enforceable. In some cases, courts may mistakenly believe that a revoked will is legitimate – and it may fall to family members to prove that this will is no longer valid. 
  • Undue Execution: There are many rules that testators must follow when creating wills in New York. If these rules are broken, the will may become invalid due to “undue execution.” 
  • Mistake: If there was some kind of mistake in the will, it may be disputed. While minor mistakes may be acceptable, a serious error can throw doubt on the entire document. For example, the testator might leave their family home to a beneficiary who does not even exist. They may also create overly ambiguous and vague statements in their will. 
  • Forgery: One of the most obvious grounds for contest is forgery. If the will is not authentic, it is not enforceable. For example, a family member might have crudely crossed out a beneficiary’s name and replaced it with their own. 

While all of these grounds are valid, some situations are much more common than others. Generally speaking, these are improper execution, lack of testamentary capacity, and undue influence. 

Only Certain People Can Dispute a Will

It is also worth mentioning that only certain people have the authority to dispute a will in New York. You cannot simply dispute a will if you have no real connection to it, even if you have reason to believe it is invalid. 

In New York, you can only dispute a will if its invalid nature causes you to receive less. Therefore, you must be a beneficiary or distributee. If you do not stand to receive anything from the will, you can only dispute the naming of a specific executor through fraud or undue influence. 

What Happens When You Dispute a Will?

If there is reason to believe that you have valid grounds to contest the will, the Probate Court of New York may agree to hear your case. This is the court responsible for deciding all matters related to wills. Note that the burden of proof is on the person who contests the will. This means that there is no requirement to prove that the will is valid, and instead, it is your responsibility to prove that the will is invalid. 

How much proof do you need to show in order to successfully dispute a will in New York? Generally speaking, you must show a “preponderance of evidence.” In other words, you need to show that there is at least a 51% likelihood that the will is invalid. To learn more about the next steps in contesting a will, be sure to get in touch with a qualified estate planning attorney in New York. 

Where Can I Find an Estate Planning Attorney in New York?

If you have been searching for a qualified estate planning attorney in New York, look no further than The Village Law Firm. Over the years, we have assisted numerous estate planners and families with various issues related to wills. If you believe something is wrong with your will, you may need to take immediate legal action. While there are certainly challenges associated with disputing a will in New York, the process may be easier than you think. To assess your legal options, be sure to book a consultation as soon as possible. 

Please Share: