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By: Jonathan Chatfield
We’ve all seen it in the movies or on television at least once. The wealthy family patriarch has passed away. His loving family has gathered in his study for the reading of “The Last Will of Jedediah Jones.” The Executor of his Will, a portly and balding man wearing granny glasses, sits at a large polished oak desk, detailing a litany of bequests. “To my Loving Daughter Molly…I leave my prized collection of milk bottles may she ever display them in my memory. And to my wonderful Son, Jed Jr., I leave my entire fortune of 100 million dollars.” Of course, his Loving Daughter Molly feels she is being treated unfairly. She immediately accuses Jed Jr. of “Poisoning Father against her!” And so begins the very dramatic, often comical portrayal of the wacky distribution of Jedediah Jones’ Estate and Loving Daughter Molly’s desire to contest a will.
But, let’s take a more realistic look at what has transpired. We can clearly see that Daughter Molly, is rightfully setting up grounds on which to contest the Will. So, all humor aside, let’s look at some of the legalities around when, and why you can contest a Will in Rhode Island.
A Will is a formal document. Requirements regarding how it is written and validated, have been established. For a formal will, two conditions make it valid. The first is that the maker of the will must sign the document. Two adult witnesses who have no claim in the will must also sign it. In other words, they must not be receiving any bequests. As a result, the have no conflict of interest in witnessing the will. A notary must also validate the signatures and place his or her seal on the document. Meeting the above criteria makes the Will a valid document. Not having the proper signatures can invalidate the document, and provide grounds to contest a Will.
Lack Of Capacity
We’ve likely all heard the reading of a Last Will and Testament. They typically begin with something similar to, “I, Jedediah Jones, being of Sound Mind…” or a similar statement. There is a crucial reason for this type of language. The verbiage indicates the maker of the Will possesses what is called “Testamentary Capacity.” This fancy legal term has a pretty simple definition. It means that the maker is legally old enough to make the Will. They must be 18 years of age in most cases. Marriage and Active Military Service also qualify an individual to make a Will legally.
In addition to the age requirement, an individual must have a clear understanding of what property and assets they own. They must also understand what it means to bequeath it to someone else in a Will.
If you are challenging on the grounds of “Lack of Capacity,” you may be required to show medical evidence of mental impairment to contest a Will.
In our example above, Loving Daughter Molly makes accusations against her sibling for “Poisoning Father against her.” With this dramatic statement, Molly is insinuating that Jed has had undue influence on her father, and perhaps coerced him to write the Will favoring brother over her.
Perhaps one sibling provides primary care for an ill parent, and as a result, the Will favors that caregiver unfairly over the other siblings. The other children may challenge the Will, stating that the caregiver sibling coerced the parent to change the will. Of course, as with any accusation, they would need to provide proof.
If you have reason to believe the decedent was forced to make or change the Will based on the improper influence of another individual, this would also be considered Undue Influence.
Both of these situations would be reasons to contest a will.
Fraud or Mistake
Another reason to contest a Will would be for Fraud. If you suspect pages were added without the knowledge of the decedent, you could contest the will for fraud. Alternatively, if you think the signatures may be forgeries, you could also challenge the Will’s validity.
A mistake in the document can also be a valid reason to contest a will. If for example, your name is William B. Richards, but the Will makes a bequest to William R. Richards, this apparent typographical error would be a reason to challenge the Will.
Summing it All Up
As you can see, there are several scenarios when it is appropriate to contest a Will. There are also defined procedures when it comes to challenging, and these vary state-by-state. States will have their own laws regarding types of petitions that can be filed, deadlines to file, and with whom you need to file. The Probate Court for your state is typically the best place to start.
In Rhode Island, you can reach out to a qualified Wills and Probate Lawyer for guidance.