A decedent’s estate must go through a process of estate administration. In New Jersey, the Surrogate’s Court and Superior Court in the county in which the decedent resided have jurisdiction over the matter. N.J. Ct. R. 4:80(c). There is a Surrogate’s Court in each County in New Jersey. For example, if the decedent was a resident of Princeton, New Jersey at the time of their death, the probate must be initiated at the Surrogate’s Court in Mercer County.
If the decedent left a will, their will must be proved and admitted to probate. However, if someone who is an interested party believes that there is problem with the will and that it is invalid, they can initiate a legal action called a “will contest” to challenge the will’s validity.
Procedure for Contesting a Will in New Jersey
In order to contest a will in New Jersey, the objectant is required to have legal standing. Only beneficiaries named in the will or in a prior will and intestate heirs have standing. There are 2 ways to contest a will: before it has been admitted to probate and after it has been admitted.
Before the will has been admitted to probate. New Jersey law provides that a decedent’s will cannot be probated any earlier than ten days after they passed away. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:3-22. Any time before the will is probated, a caveat can be filed with the Surrogate. A caveat is a short, signed statement that says someone contests the probate of a will. The objectant does not have to include a reason on the signed statement. Once filed, the Surrogate Court cannot probate the will. Instead, the proponent of the will, which is usually the executor, must initiate an action to admit the will to probate.
Note that both the Surrogate’s Court and the Superior Court have jurisdiction over probate cases. Surrogate’s Courts jurisdiction is restricted to uncontested matters, while the Superior Court can handled contested matters. The filing of a caveat will result in a transfer of the probate proceedings from the Surrogate’s Court to the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part in the relevant county. N.J. Ct. R. 4:82
After the will has been admitted to probate. If the will has already been admitted to probate, a will contest can be filed within 4 months after probate. If the contestant lives outside of New Jersey, the contestant has 6 months to contest the will. When contesting the will, the contestant must provide the grounds for opposing the will.
Reasons for a will contest. To initiate a will contest, the contestant must have valid legal justification for doing so.
- Lack of testamentary capacity. New Jersey law requires that for a will to be valid the testator must have been competent to make the will. Unless the testate was at least 18 years old and was of “sound mind,” the will would not be valid. “Sound mind” is defined as the testator being mentally competent such that they understood the extent and nature of their estate, who their natural heirs are, and what it means to make a will. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:3-1
- Undue influence. Another reason for contesting a will is that a trusted person illegally manipulated the testator into creating the will. This happens when a manipulative person has a position of power with respect to the testator. The manipulator uses that position to get the testator to make a will that reflects the wishes of the manipulator and not of the testator.
- Improper execution. Under New Jersey law, certain formalities must be followed with respect to how the will is executed. Specifically, the testator must sign and at least two witnesses must sign it. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:3-2. However, even if the will was not executed properly, New Jersey law specifically allows for the consideration of extrinsic evidence to show that the document was intended by the testator to be a will. Extrinsic evidence is evidence that is not provided by the will itself but is derived from external sources.
- Duress. If the testator was forced to make the will, it would be invalid due to duress.
- Later will. If another will was executed after the date of the will that was submitted for probate, the later will would revoke the prior will. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:3-13
The outcome of a successful will contest is that the will would not be probated. If another will is presented that prove to be valid, it will be probated. Otherwise, New Jersey’s law of intestate succession will apply, and the property will go to the decedent’s legal heirs.
No Contest Clause
A “no contest” clause in a will is designed to prohibit the will from being challenged. In reality, while a testator cannot prevent someone from contesting the will, they can penalize an objectant who is also a beneficiary by providing that such an objectant would forfeit all or a portion of their inheritance. However, in New Jersey no contest clauses are not enforced.