The specifics of impending inheritance often surprises beneficiaries. An unexpected gift, for instance, could prove transformative. However, estate-related decisions are not always without controversy. When heirs believe that a will contains unfair provisions, or suspect that a loved one’s last testament is not legitimate, they may have reason to ask the court to assess the will’s validity
The Grounds for Contesting a Will in Florida
Florida law presumes that most adults have the mental and legal capacity to make important estate-related decisions. Under most circumstances, a will is valid so long as it meets the following requirements:
- The will must be written. In other words, no oral declarations, even if recorded, or handwritten instructions without the necessary signatures.
- The testator must be an adult of sound mind.
- The will must be signed by the testator.
- The will must be signed by at least two witnesses in the presence of one another and the testator.
A will contest can only be filed if an heir, beneficiary, or other interested party has proper cause to challenge the estate. If a will is otherwise valid under Florida state law, then any prospective contest must be predicated on firm legal standing.
A will could, for instance, be challenged if an heir has a compelling reason to believe that:
- The testator was subjected to undue influence, including threats of violence or coercion.
- The testator was not of sound mind and lacked the mental capacity to understand that they were creating, amending, or revoking a will.
- The estate was a victim of fraud, with the will being fraudulent either in part or in whole.
However, even when heirs have the standing and grounds to initiate an estate contest, they must typically provide compelling evidence to support their position.
The Procedure for Will Contests in Florida
Probate contests are very similar to lawsuits. However, they are not separate legal proceedings. If and when an heir challenges an estate, they initiate an adversary proceeding with the probate court. This proceeding must be resolved before the estate can be dissolved.
An adversary probate proceeding is subject to strict procedural rules. When filing an adversary proceeding, you must be prepared to:
- File a petition. If you are challenging the validity of a will already submitted to the probate court, then you must file either a petition to revoke probate, counter petition for administration, or other appropriate pleading. The petition is, in effect and in practice, your contest. It should evidence your standing and inform the court of the will’s alleged faults.
- Defend your position with evidence. If a will was never signed or contains other obvious faults, then the court may dismiss the testament without reviewing additional evidence. However, estate contests predicated on less technical grounds—such as undue influence or fraud—must provide evidence supporting the petition’s claims.
- Anticipate the unexpected. If you, or a loved one, have considered filing a challenge against an estate, you should consider consulting an experienced Florida probate litigation attorney before initiating a contest. Under certain, limited circumstances, the revocation of a will could lead to a complete loss of inheritance rights.
The Possible Outcomes of a Will Contest
If a will is contested, the court may find:
- The will is valid. If the will is found valid, then the petition is dismissed and probate will continue in accordance with the terms of the will.
- The will is invalid. If the will is determined invalid, then the court may reinstate the last valid will. If there is no other will, then the estate will be dissolved in accordance with Florida’s intestacy statutes.
- The will is partially invalid. If the will is only partially invalid, then the court may enforce only the remaining valid provisions.
Since will contests can have unexpected consequences, heirs should always think twice before filing a challenge.