When Maryland residents sign their wills, most assume that their estate planning decisions will be enforced by the local court according to the terms spelled out in the will. Unfortunately, this assumption is not always borne out by future events. One or more potential heirs may feel that they were treated unfairly by the deceased person, or that the will is invalid because the decedent lacked sufficient mental capacity.
An understanding of the various reasons why a will or a specific bequest may be declared invalid by a Maryland probate court is essential to ensuring that a will is valid and that its bequests will be enforced by the court.
What is a will contest?
A will contest is the legal name for a court proceeding that determines whether a will or a specific provision is valid. Only certain persons are eligible to commence a will contest; among these individuals are family members, any heir named in the will, and any other person who has a legal claim to a share of the estate.
Violation of will formalities
Every will executed by a Maryland resident must be in writing (oral wills cannot be enforced), signed by the person making the will, and witnessed by two adults. The failure to satisfy any of these requirements will invalidate the will.
Because most Maryland residents use an attorney to draft a will and supervise its execution, the formalities are followed in almost every case. Only rarely can a will be declared invalid for the failure to follow the formal requirements.
A more realistic reason for invalidating a will is proof that an heir exercised undue influence over the testator to obtain an excessively large bequest. Proof of undue influence usually requires one or more witnesses to testify that the testator had an unusually close relationship with the heir alleged to have received an overly large share of the estate.
Fraud is a similar reason for invalidating a will. The heir accused of committing fraud must be shown to have misstated a material fact in dealing with the testator, thereby leading the testator to make a large bequest in the belief that the misrepresented fact is true.
Lack of mental capacity
If the testator was suffering from a mental impairment at the time when the will was executed, the will is invalid. Proof of insufficient mental capacity requires evidence showing that the testator did not understand the purpose of the will or the fact that the will would give away assets.
Consulting an estate planning attorney
Anyone who questions the validity of a will made by a family member or close friend may wish to commence a will contest with an experienced probate attorney. A knowledgeable attorney can evaluate the facts and provide an opinion on the likelihood that the will contest will succeed.