Will disputes are among the most challenging situations a grieving family can go through. A contested will adds significant uncertainty regarding how a decedent’s estate is distributed to their heirs and beneficiaries. Further, litigation is expensive and can undermine the value of an estate.
Beyond the financial uncertainties, these disputes can lead to irreconcilable family strife. Underlying familial conflicts often surface as family members fight for what they believe is right. The method by which an estate is divided can also lead to feelings of hurt and rejection. These feelings intensify the underlying dispute and make matters hard to resolve.
At Batson Nolan PLC, we have years of experience handling estate planning and will disputes. Our experienced attorneys know how to handle the most challenging end-of-life legal matters with integrity, dignity, and respect. We understand the importance of carrying out your wishes and how underlying emotions affect that mission. Further, not all wills are created equal. In many cases, will disputes are legitimate and necessary. Whether disputing a will or defending a contested will, Batson Nolan can protect your rights. Contact us today and schedule a consultation.
Common Reasons for Will Disputes
Putting together an effective estate plan requires understanding the most common reasons why wills are disputed in Tennessee. Knowing what to expect will help you reduce the chances your estate will be subject to a destructive dispute in the first place.
Ambiguity in the Will
Ambiguity in a will is among the most common causes of will contests. If a will does not provide complete clarity regarding how a decedent intended to distribute their estate, the court must resolve any ambiguities. Deciding who gets what without clear guidance is difficult, especially if competing interpretations can have drastically different outcomes.
The best way to avoid ambiguity when writing your will is to work with an experienced estate lawyer. Estate attorneys should understand how to state your wishes and express them clearly so as to avoid confusion and results that go against your wishes. They will help you avoid many common traps people fall into when estate planning.
Sometimes, elderly individuals are vulnerable to the influence of those around them. Too often, unscrupulous people use this influence to coerce an elderly person into changing their will. This dynamic is why undue influence is a legal ground to contest a will.
Clearly communicating your last wishes with friends and family is an effective way to reduce the chances that your will might be contested on this basis. Further, claims of undue influence are often linked with lack of testamentary capacity claims. Meeting with a lawyer and getting an examination to establish competency before making changes to your will can help reduce the potential for an undue influence dispute.
Lack of Testamentary Capacity
In Tennessee, a person must be of sound mind to make a will. The courts refer to this standard as testamentary capacity. An individual must meet four requirements to possess testamentary capacity:
- The person must understand the nature and consequences of preparing or changing their will;
- The person must understand the nature and extent of their property;
- The individual must know the relationship between themselves and their beneficiaries; and
- The person must be able to link all three elements together to create an estate plan.
It is up to a person contesting a will to prove that the decedent lacked one of these four requirements when they executed the will.
Much like protecting against an undue influence claim, getting a physical examination and working with an estate attorney can minimize the chances your will can be contested based on testamentary capacity.
The existence of some form of fraud is a valid reason to contest a will in Tennessee. Fraud can present itself in many forms. For example, a caregiver might attempt to get an inheritance by fooling a person into signing a will while thinking it is another document. Additionally, a person could submit a fake will if a decedent dies intestate.
The best way to protect against fraud is to work with a lawyer to create a validly executed estate plan. Having a clear legal will reduces the opportunity for fraudsters to take advantage.
Improperly Executed Will
Courts can invalidate improperly executed wills. To properly execute a will in Tennessee, the will must be:
- In writing,
- Signed by the person executing the will, and
- Signed by two witnesses.
It is best to have the two witnesses be disinterested parties, meaning they will not receive anything from the estate. If one of the two witnesses is an interested party, they forfeit any inheritance above what they would have received based on Tennessee’s intestacy statutes.
Working with an experienced estate lawyer will help you ensure your will is executed correctly.
How to Contest a Will
Disputing a will for any reason can lead to a complicated legal process. First, anyone who wishes to dispute a will must have standing to bring a case to court. Second, if a person does have standing, they will need to go through a formal litigation process. There is also a statute of limitations for contesting a will.
Legal Grounds to Contest a Will
In Tennessee, an individual must have standing and a valid dispute to file a claim in court. In other words, only someone with a direct financial interest in the outcome of a potential dispute can have legal standing. Specifically, individuals named in a prior will and people who would inherit property under Tennessee’s intestacy laws often have standing. Creditors can also dispute wills. Anyone who does not have standing can not contest a will.
Further, a valid issue must be at stake for the courts to hear a claim. If the person bringing the lawsuit thinks they should have been included in the will but can not point to any legal issues, they do not have a claim. An experienced estate litigation lawyer can help you determine if you have a valid claim to file in court.
Legal Procedures for Contesting a Will
If someone has standing and a valid claim, they must file their lawsuit in the probate court with jurisdiction. Once they file the lawsuit, the process plays out much like any other civil litigation. The defendant is given a chance to respond to the complaint, then the rest of the litigation plays out. Ultimately both sides will have the opportunity to present evidence and prove their claims before a judge or jury, who decides the issue.
Often the threat of litigation can be used to convince all parties involved to solve the matter through less intense and expensive methods. These methods include collaborative law, mediation, and arbitration.
Statute of Limitations
Cost of Contesting a Will
Determining the costs of contesting a will is difficult without knowing the specific issues being raised. But common costs include the following:
- Court fees,
- Attorney’s fees,
- Collection of evidence,
- Expert witness fees,
- Document costs, and
- Travel expenses.
An attorney can help you understand the potential costs associated with your case.
Beyond direct costs, plaintiffs can face additional losses if they contest a will that contains a no-contest clause. These clauses reduce or eliminate the share of the estate that anyone who contests the will can receive. Essentially a no-contest clause disinherits anyone who challenges the estate plan in court. No-contest clauses are enforceable in Tennessee, but if a plaintiff contests the will with good faith and has probable cause, the no-contest clause might not be enforced. An experienced attorney from Batson Nolan can help you determine if you can contest a will without triggering the penalties of a no-contest clause.
How to Defend a Will
In most cases, the responsibility for defending a contested will lies with the executor of that will. The executor is either appointed by the decedent when they execute the will or appointed by the court during probate.
Defending the Validity of a Will
The burden of proof for a disputed will claim is on the person contesting the will. This burden means that an executor defending a will must prevent a plaintiff from proving their claim to win the case. The strategy an executor should pursue depends primarily on the plaintiff’s arguments.
Any evidence showing a will was validly executed while the decedent possessed testamentary capacity can help the executor defend the contested will. If you are an executor facing a legal dispute, you should work with a skilled attorney to present the best defense and uphold the will.
Cost of Defending a Will
The costs of defending a will mirror the costs of challenging one. However, the executor pays for reasonable litigation costs out of the decedent’s estate.
Strategies for Resolving Disputes
Litigation is only one way to resolve will disputes. Most estate issues are settled through other means that do not necessitate going to court.
Collaborative law is a relatively new way to solve legal disputes. The way it works is all parties sign a collaborative agreement to resolve the dispute out of court. A separate attorney represents each side—however, these attorneys cannot represent their clients in court if the dispute is not resolved through the collaborative process. During the collaborative process, each side works together to solve the disagreement while having access to a personal attorney.
Using collaborative law to resolve will disputes is relatively rare, given how new the concept is.
Mediation is a process through which each party meets with a mutually agreed upon neutral third party called a mediator. The mediator does not decide the result of the process but helps steer the parties to a mutually agreeable resolution.
Arbitration is a private process where all parties agree to present their case to one or more arbitrators. The arbitrators hear the case and decide the outcome. The rules governing arbitration are up for negotiation, but the results are legally binding once the parties agree to arbitration. Binding arbitration is often favored as a cheaper option than litigation.
Litigation is usually the method of last resort because it can be slow and expensive. The probate court with jurisdiction over the case hears any will dispute litigation. Most courts have a large caseload, so litigation in this forum moves slowly. Further, unlike in arbitration, probate court decisions can be appealed for various reasons. However, appeals cost more money and add more time to the process.
Batson Nolan PLC Can Help
The experienced estate attorneys at Batson Nolan can help you create an estate plan to minimize the chances of a will dispute. Further, we can help you defend a will or file and pursue a dispute in court. Batson Nolan has a reputation for ethics and skill. We provide every client with the quality of a big-name firm combined with a smaller firm’s personalized service. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.