Rampulla & Newstad LLP

Sentimental Assets and Your Will: Understanding When Someone Can Challenge Your Wishes

Emotions can run high after a loved one dies, particularly if your family’s assets include items with sentimental value, and the last thing you want is for your family to start fighting after you pass away.

Defuse Conflict Over Sentimental Items Before You Pass Away

How can you prevent your heirs from fighting over items with sentimental value? Many people believe that a statement in a will or trust that basically says “tangible personal property should be divided as my heirs see fit” will solve the problem. However, this can lead to a host of potential conflicts. A better approach is to put specific items that you believe are of interest to certain family members in writing, and then discuss your decisions in advance with your family. In this way, many emotionally charged disputes can be avoided.

What if you are convinced that a former spouse, one of your children, or the spouse of one of your children will cause trouble no matter what you specify in your will? In this case, you might want to consider a no contest clause. In essence, this clause makes the risk of challenging your will outweigh the potential benefit of doing so. A no contest clause generally stipulates that if a beneficiary contests the will’s provisions or its validity, his or interest in the will is forfeited. It is important to note, however, that you have to leave the heir in question enough of an inheritance to motivate him or her not to challenge the will.

When a Challenge to Your Will is Inevitable

The good news is that, generally speaking, challenging a will isn’t easy. And that’s especially true if there is a valid document in place that was drafted by an experienced attorney, signed by you, and duly executed according to your state’s law. Even in cases without all those dotted “i”s and crossed “t”s, successfully overcoming a will can prove difficult. However, it does happen.

Challenging a will must be done in a formal process called a will contest, or caveat. Caveat proceedings are most common in cases where more than one document exists and the beneficiaries disagree as to which is the “true will.” Contests can also arise when there are holographic (i.e. handwritten) wills, confusing written statements, uncertain verbal statements, surprising or grossly unfair provisions, apparent deathbed revisions, or questions about the circumstances under which a will was made.

As a general rule, if your beneficiaries wish to start a caveat process, they must successfully allege one of the following claims:

Lack of Testamentary Capacity — The testator (i.e. the deceased) was not of sound mind when the will was made, did not know the value of their estate, or otherwise did not understand the consequences and effects of the will.

Invalid Execution — The will was not executed according to the laws of your state. This argument is raised when there are questions about the capacity and/or signatures of either the testator or the witnesses. The court will typically presume that the will was properly executed, so the caveator (the person challenging the will) must overcome that presumption, usually with the help of their attorney.

Negligent Execution — A clerk or attorney made a mistake when drafting or executing the will, thereby accidentally contradicting your intentions.

Undue Influence — The caveator claims you were coerced, wrongfully pressured, or subjected to duress when making the will.

Fraud — The will is fraudulent or a forgery. Caveators may also argue that your intentions were colored by fraud. For example, let’s say you disinherit your nephew because your niece falsely accuses him of stealing your money.

A Second Will — The caveator believes there is another document that supplements or supersedes the purported will.

If you have questions about how you can start protecting assets of sentimental value or how the caveat process works, our office is here to help. Schedule an appointment with the estate planning attorneys of Rampulla & Newstad LLP.