Before filing a Will contest with the court, it is crucial to complete an initial investigation of all the relevant facts and circumstances. If certain legal requirements are not met, a Will contest may be impossible. Further, in many cases even when the legal requirements are met, the facts of the case do not provide a robust foundation on which to argue your side of the case.
There are a variety of facts and procedures and other issues that are pertinent to a Will contest. Let’s begin by exploring the concept of “Unnatural Disposition.”
First of all, what is a “disposition?” Simply put, a “disposition” disposes of property to those named in a Will according to the dictates found in a Will.
When, though, does a disposition become an “unnatural disposition.” Very generally (and there are numerous exceptions), a Will’s disposition may be assumed “unnatural” when it does not provide for the transfer of property to the Testator’s spouse, children, or parents. So, if the Will dictates that property be distributed to parties other than your spouse, children, or parents, it might be assumed that the Will contains an unnatural disposition—which may look suspicious. As a result, that suspiciousness might encourage interested individuals to bring a Will contest.
Having explained that, it is crucial to note that the mere presence of an unnatural disposition is not sufficient to invalidate a Will. An unnatural disposition is simply an initial indication that the Testator (the person to whom the Will belonged) may have possibly been unduly influenced to prepare and sign a Will. If such undue influence is found, the Will may be deemed invalid, leaving the Testator’s property to be distributed in a different manner.
It isn’t that simple, however. There are numerous things to consider.
First and foremost, some Testators often do want to give their property to a charity, a church, or other individuals who are not a spouse, a child, or a parent. And that Testator may have very compelling reasons to do so.
This brings us to a critical question:
How does a court distinguish a genuine and rational choice to make an unnatural disposition from an unduly influenced or forced action to make such a disposition?
There is usually no simple answer. All facts and circumstances must be considered on an individual case-by-case basis—and no two cases are alike. We can, however, identify some factors that may “tip the scales” one way or the other.
For example, you might choose to dispose of your entire estate to only one of your three children. Initially, that appears suspicious, as if that child had manipulated you into doing so. Again, though, it is necessary to consider all the facts. Perhaps that child has taken care of you in your old age and has been a close friend to you your entire life, whereas your other two children are drug addicts who have stolen from you to support their addiction. In that case, although the disposition initially appears unnatural, it is a rational one. With such facts, your Will and its dictates could be upheld.
In addition to unique family patterns and relationships, it is also worth considering prior Wills and the circumstances surrounding the creation of new Wills. For example, perhaps you signed a valid Will a decade ago, which provided for an equal distribution of your property upon death. Then, shortly before your death, you signed a new Will that distributed all your property to only one child. The timing of the signing, and the unequal distribution is suspicious. That suspiciousness may be further reinforced by reviewing the dictates of the previous Will that had remained unaltered for years.
Also worth considering are gifts and financial choices made that became effective during life. For example, you might have given a gift to one of your children during life, and consequently reduced that child’s inheritance in your Will so that your other children eventually receive a proportional share of your assets after you pass away. In that case, yes, one child might technically receive less under your Will, but, when considering all the facts, that was done rationally. In that case, the child who received less under the Will probably has less persuasive arguments in a potential Will contest. Other choices that become effective during life could include joint financial accounts, “payable-on-death” accounts, or beneficiary designations on life insurance policies.
In summary, before considering a Will contest, it is crucial to determine if an “unnatural disposition” has been made. If so, that could give rise to legitimate suspicions about the validity of a Will. With that in mind, it is of utmost importance to evaluate the unique facts and circumstances of each case to decide whether to proceed with a Will contest.