Unfair Inheritance: Challenging a Will in Probate Court

Unfair Inheritance: Contesting a Will

Family members sometimes feel disappointment in how they are treated in a loved one’s estate. But dissatisfaction of a beneficiary or a person omitted from a Last Will and Testament is not a sufficient legal basis for contesting a will in probate court. Minnesota statutes include complex provisions governing probate court petitions that contest a will, including that there must be legal grounds for the challenge.

Contesting a Will in Minnesota

Contesting a will in Minnesota requires a person to file a petition with the probate court. Detailed statutory provisions establish specific criteria that apply.

First, the person must have standing to file a petition. In practical terms, that usually means the person must be either a devisse (named in the will) or an heir entitled to inherit under the Minnesota laws of intestate succession. Someone who does not meet the standing requirement qualification does not have a legal right to contest a will.

In addition, a petition challenging a will must be filed within one year of the decedent’s death. The one-year requirement is a statute of limitations on the legal right to contest a will.

Finally, there must be a legal basis for challenging a will. Minnesota law recognizes only specific legal grounds for pursuing a petition challenging a will.

Legal Reasons for Challenging a Will

A person with standing who timely files a petition to challenge a will must present legal grounds for the will contest. Minnesota recognizes four primary legal reasons for contesting a will:

  • Undue influence
  • Lack of testamentary capacity or intent
  • Fraud or forgery
  • Improper execution

Each of these grounds has specific criteria that must be proven. Regardless of what legal basis is asserted, Minnesota law puts the burden of proof and ultimate burden of persuasion on the petitioner to establish the legal basis for contesting the will.

Undue Influence

A claim of undue influence asserts that someone forced, coerced, or threatened the decedent into signing the will. Especially for vulnerable elders, situations exist where someone, often a caregiver or family member, can exert undue influence. If a situation existed prior to death where someone was in a position to exert pressure or force the decedent to sign the will, a challenge can be filed on the basis of undue influence.

Lack of Testamentary Capacity or Intent

For a will to be valid, the person signing it must have the mental ability to fully understand the terms of the will, appreciate the nature of their financial holdings, and comprehend the full implications of the consequences of signing a will or an amendment to a will. The issue of mental capacity is determined at the time the will was executed.

Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and serious illness or injury can all affect a person’s mental capacity to the point where they lack the capacity to understand and appreciate the consequences of their actions. However, even a person with physical or mental conditions can have a lucid interval at the time they execute a will.

If a case of mental incapacity can be established, it is a legal basis for contesting a will. A detailed discussion of testamentary capacity is available in another article, Challenging a Will Based on Lack of Capacity of the Testator.

Fraud or Forgery

If a person named in the will made a false statement to the decedent to induce them to change the terms of the will, and the terms were changed to benefit the person making the false statement on account of the falsehood, the will can be challenged based on fraud. If the will was changed for reasons unrelated to the false statement, a case of fraud cannot be established.

Fraud can also occur if the person making the will signed the document, but was deceived into believing that the document was something other than a will. Forgery is a different type of fraud that can invalidate a will. If it can be proven that the signature to the will or the witness signatures were forged, the forgery provides a legal basis for a will contest.

Improper Execution

Like many other states, Minnesota has specific requirements that must be met when a will is signed. They include having qualified witnesses present when the will is signed and having the witnesses attest to the signature by signing the will. If the execution requirements are not met, a will can be invalid on the basis that it does not meet legal requirements.

Other Considerations

Successfully challenging a will is a substantial undertaking that requires assistance from an experienced probate litigation attorney. In addition to meeting all the Minnesota legal requirements for a will contest, challenging a will requires significant investigation into the background and facts of the case as part of compiling the evidence necessary to meet the burden of proof. A lawyer’s role includes making certain that the petitioner is aware of all the potential risks of an unsuccessful contest.

One risk of a will contest is the toll a court action can take on the entire family. Lifelong relationships can be irretrievably damaged in estate litigation. In addition, a court case takes time to process and requires payment of fees and expenses all along the way. In addition to fees for legal counsel, there are court costs and expenses for gathering evidence, like taking depositions and using expert witnesses when necessary.

Before you decide to forge into a challenge to a will, you should discuss your case with a knowledgeable Minnesota estate and probate litigation attorney. That way, you will be fully informed before you make the final decision.

Talk With an Experienced Minnesota Estate and Probate Litigation Lawyer

Probate and estate litigation is a primary focus of my practice at the Dave Burns Law Office. I represent personal representatives, heirs, and others with an interest in an estate regarding potential court actions, including will contests.

If you would like to discuss a situation involving an estate, I invite you to contact me at (612) 677-8351 or by emailing dave@daveburnslaw.com. 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, Probate

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