What happens if you believe that a loved one’s last will and testament is not valid? Under New Jersey probate law, if there is a last will and testament, it must be probated (filed) with the surrogate in the county where the decedent resided. The will’s terms control the distribution of the decedent’s assets. However, there are a number of reasons why a will can be challenged. If the challenge is successful, then the will is voided and the probate assets will be distributed either by a previously executed will or the laws of intestacy.
The simplest way to challenge a will is before it is probated. In New Jersey, you cannot probate a will until at least ten days following the date of death. Any time before the will is probated a caveat can be filed with the court and this will prevent probate of the will. Then any disputes regarding the will’s validity will be resolved before the court permits it to be probated.
The will’s validity can also be challenged after it has been probated. To challenge a will under New Jersey probate law you must be able to prove one of the statutory reasons which include undue influence, lack of capacity, fraud, forgery, revocation and mistake. There is a short time period to challenge a will, if you are seeking to challenge a will and you reside in New Jersey the statute of limitation is four months and if you are an out of state resident the statute of limitation is six months. The most often encountered bases of a will challenge are undue influence and lack of capacity.
To challenge a will based upon undue influence, you must show “coercion exerted [which] may be mental, moral or physical, or all three, but it must be such as to pre-empt the testator from following the dictates of his own mind and will and accepting instead the domination and influence of another.” Essentially the question here is whether the person who signed the will did so of his own free will without influence or pressure from someone who benefitted from the terms of the will. The person challenging the will must prove that a person in a “confidential relationship” with the testator unduly influenced the terms of the will, and that there were “suspicious circumstances” surrounding the execution of the will. To determine whether there was undue influence the courts will look at many factors, including: if the terms of this will are a significant change to a prior existing will; the age and health of the testator at the time the will was signed; if the testator lived with or under the supervision of the person benefitting from the will; if the person in the confidential relationship with the testator is benefitting from the terms of the will; and if the person benefitting from the will hired the lawyer to prepare the will.
Will challenges are also frequently based upon the testator’s lack of capacity to make the will. To successfully challenge a will for lack of capacity under New Jersey estate law, it must be shown that at the time the will was executed, the testator did understand: 1) the nature and value of the property he owned; 2) the identity of the “natural objects of his bounty” (the family members would receive his property upon his death if he did not have a will); and 3) the effect of the terms of his will.
This can be difficult to prove, the fact that the testator suffered from a mental illness or medical condition which affected his mental acuity does not automatically mean the he lacks the capacity to make a will.
The probate and estate attorneys at McLaughlin & Nardi can assist you in determining whether you have a reasonable chance to successfully challenge a will. Call or e-mail our attorneys to schedule an appointment.