How Does the Minnesota Harmless Error Rule Impact Estate Litigation?

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The COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on all aspects of the legal field, including estate and probate litigation. Many states — including Minnesota — adopted a “Harmless Error” rule which relaxed the formalities governing the execution and modification of wills. The law specifically applies to wills created or altered between March 13, 2020 and February 15, 2021. It permits courts to recognize the validity of wills and will modifications provided there is “clear and convincing” evidence the testator had the intent the document should control.

What is the Harmless Error Rule?

Minnesota Statute § 524.2-503 — also known as the Harmless Error rule — allows Minnesota courts to recognize a will as valid even if it does not comply with the prerequisites. The statute applies to the following documents as long as a proponent can establish by clear and convincing evidence that it is intended to constitute:

  • The decedent’s will
  • A partial or complete revocation of the will
  • An addition or modification to the will
  • A partial or complete revival of the decedent’s formerly revoked will

Prior to the adoption of the Harmless Error rule, to be valid under Minnesota law, a will or modification must satisfy the following criteria: (1) the will must be in writing; (2) signed by the testator or another person at the testator’s direction; (3) signed by two witnesses. The purpose of these legal formalities was to prevent fraud and ensure the testator fully understood the importance of the document they were signing. However, social distancing measures during COVID-19 made it difficult to meet these requirements.

How is the Harmless Error Rule Applied?

A last will and testament that fails to adhere to the above formalities is more likely to be challenged in court by a beneficiary who is not satisfied with the document. Under the Harmless Error rule, the burden of proof will be placed on the proponent to establish by clear and convincing evidence that it was the testator’s intent for the document to be controlling.

The clear and convincing standard is a very high burden of proof to satisfy in order to validate a will that doesn’t meet the traditional formalities. To satisfy this legal standard, the evidence must establish that there is a high probability of truth as to the facts that are offered as proof. In other words, it must be demonstrated that it is more probable that the evidence is true.

When it comes to trusts and estates litigation, courts may be more likely to invoke the Harmless Error rule to validate a will when the deviations from the formalities are minor. The greater the deviation from the traditional legal requirements, the more challenging it will be for the party offering the will to probate.

How Can a Last Will and Testament Be Challenged?

A will may be challenged within one year after the testator’s death. However, there are a limited number of grounds upon which a will can be contested in Minnesota. One way to challenge a will is by showing that the testator lacked the capacity to understand the document they were signing. Other grounds to contest a will can include undue influence, fraud, duress, mistake, or revocation.

As mentioned above, the proponent of a will can also raise a challenge if the instrument failed to meet the necessary legal formalities. In addition, although alterations can be made to a will at any time, changes or modifications must be signed and witnessed in the same manner as the original instrument. Generally, if there are substantial changes that must be made, it’s best to revoke an existing will and make a new one to avoid potential litigation. In the event the alterations are minor, an amendment — also referred to as a codicil — can be added to the existing will.

An individual must have the proper legal standing to challenge a decedent’s will. Typically, a person with standing is an heir or another beneficiary who stands to inherit from the decedent’s estate if they passed without a will. It can also include someone designated as a beneficiary in the current will — or a previous version of the will. An individual mentioned in the will as being disinherited may also have standing to raise a will contest.

Contact an Experienced Minnesota Estate and Probate Litigation Attorney

Challenging a loved one’s will can be emotionally stressful and legally complex. At Dave Burns Law Office, I represent personal representatives, heirs, and other individuals in estate litigation matters, including will contests.

If you would like to discuss an estate or probate matter, I invite you to contact me at (612) 677-8351 or by emailing I welcome inquiries from clients and referring attorneys throughout the State of Minnesota. I am available to meet with clients in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Categories: Litigation

The Dave Burns Law Office hopes you find this article helpful. But please do not rely on it as legal advice. The law changes regularly and the outcome of any legal matter depends on its unique circumstances. View full disclaimer