A will contest might occur because family members feel surprised about the specific contents of an estate plan or because they believe that their loved one was not fit to put together documents at the time they drafted their final estate plan.
Will contests often lead to family disputes that may forever alter the dynamics of the family unit. The parties who feel wronged may not accept even the ruling of the courts and could resent the other parties involved in the dispute for the rest of their lives. Siblings may stop talking to each other, or stepchildren could effectively cut a stepparent out of the family.
Not only is probate litigation often damaging for families, but it can also be quite expensive. Is negotiation a viable means of addressing claims about a will’s validity?
Negotiations are feasible in some scenarios
It is possible to settle certain disputes about the contents of an estate plan through negotiations. Family members could potentially convince one another through discussions that the testator’s medical conditions limited their testamentary capacity at the time they drafted the documents.
Mediation or a sit-down session with all of the relevant parties and their lawyers might potentially facilitate a workable compromise to resolve the dispute. However, neither the beneficiaries of the estate nor the executor or personal representative administering it have the authority to make determinations that run contrary to either state law or the estate planning documents.
The beneficiaries and estate administrator typically cannot agree to toss out a will and ignore someone’s last wishes. Instead, litigation will be necessary to contest the will and pursue an alternative approach to asset distribution. However, the litigation does not necessarily need to be adversarial in nature if there have already been successful negotiations on the matter. Instead, the litigation can focus on proving the issues with the documents rather than on family members fighting against one another.
In most cases, for the outcome of estate administration to deviate from the instructions in a will, the review and approval of a probate judge will be necessary. Recognizing that seeking this approval is often an important part of a will contest can help both beneficiaries and those who are handling the administration of an estate take thoughtful steps to resolve a conflict.