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Which will is valid when a loved one leaves behind more than one?

On Behalf of | Apr 10, 2024 | ESTATE ADMINISTRATION

If a loved one dies before you’ve had a chance to discuss their estate plan, you may be relieved to find a will somewhere in their home or other property. But what the family finds another one – and maybe even a third?

They may have various dates – or no dates. One or more may not be signed or signed but without witness signatures. They may have words, amounts or entire passages crossed out. If a beneficiary gets more assets in one will than another, they’re likely going to claim that’s the valid one. A beneficiary who’s given less in one version or cut out completely will likely argue that a particular version isn’t valid.

It’s not just assets that can be at stake when more than one will is left behind. There may be confusion over who the deceased wanted to be their executor or even their successor in the family business based on whether something was underlined or crossed out — not unlike what occurred in the TV show Succession when it wasn’t clear whether their father had crossed out or underlined one son’s name.

Who makes the decision?

If surviving family members find one or more wills – even if they’re in agreement on which one reflects their loved one’s last wishes – they need to submit them all to the probate court to determine which one to follow. Typically, it will be the most recent one – assuming that it meets the state’s legal requirements. It’s also wise to find out if the deceased had professional estate planning guidance. This can shed some light on what the deceased intended.

Whichever will is determined by the court as the one recognized, it may be disputed further if one or more family members challenge their loved one’s testamentary capacity to write a will at the time or believe that their loved one made changes because of undue influence by a caregiver or even a family member.

Multiple wills and other estate plan documents can cause unnecessary family conflict and even litigation. Seeking legal guidance can help family members make their case for the will they believe best reflects their loved one’s wishes.