When someone passes away, their estate must go through a process of estate administration. The Surrogate’s Court in the county in which the decedent resided has jurisdiction over the matter. SCPA § 201. For example, if the decedent lived in Mt. Vernon at the time of their death, then probate must be initiated in Westchester County. If the decedent left a will, their will must be proved and admitted to probate. If during the probate hearing someone objects to the will, the court must allow both sides to argue their positions and must make a determination as to whether the will should be probated. This type of probate dispute is a will contest.
Procedure for Contesting a Will in New York
In order to contest a will in New York, the objectant must be an “interested party.” SCPA § 1410. An interested party is someone who has a financial interest in the matter and is generally limited to beneficiaries, heirs, and beneficiaries of a prior will.
When the personal representative files the petition for probate along with the will, a notice is sent to interested parties. Oftentimes the personal representative sends a waiver along with the notice, asking the recipient to waive any objections to the probate of the will. If an interested party wishes to contest the will, then instead of signing the waiver (if any), the person would show up at hearing where the will will be offered to probate and present a written objection.
- Lack of testamentary capacity. A will can be declared void if there is evidence that the testator was of unsound mind at the time it was executed. At the time of execution, the testator must have understood the extent and nature of their assets, who their heirs are, and what it means to make a will. While a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, a traumatic brain injury, or other condition which impacts cognitive ability may be some evidence of mental incapacity, it is not necessarily conclusive. The objectant must have evidence that at the time the will was executed, the testator was mentally incapacitated. EPTL § 3-1.1.
- Undue influence. Undue influence occurs when a testator was illegally influenced into executing a will they would not have otherwise made. The influence must have been more than simple influence. The circumstances must have been such that the influencer who had a confidential relationship with the testator intentionally and illegally took advantage of a vulnerable testator for their own benefit.
- Improper execution. Under New York law, to be valid a will must be signed by the testator at the end and properly witnessed by at least two people. EPTL § 3-2.1. The witnesses must be qualified and must also sign the will. A will can be contested on the grounds that these signatures were not proper.
- Duress. Duress involves a direct threat of physical violence, or the actual use of physical or emotional coercion. Evidence that duress caused the testator to make their will would make it invalid.
Consequences of a Will Contest in New York
If the New York Surrogate’s Court concludes that a will is invalid for any reason, and there is a prior or later will that is valid, the court will probate that will. In the absence of a prior or later valid will, the decedent would be intestate. Their estate would be administered and distributed based on New York’s rules of intestate succession. EPTL § 4-1.1. New York’s intestate succession statute provides that when there is no will, the decedent’s closest living relative would be entitled to inherit.
New York’s law of intestate succession statute states that an intestate decedent’s default distributees are their surviving spouse and children, with the spouse entitled to a larger portion of the estate than the children. If the decedent left both a surviving spouse and children, the spouse would be entitled to the first $50,000 of the estate, plus half of the balance of the estate, while the children would be entitled to the other half of the estate which they would share equally. In the absence of children, the spouse would inherit everything, while in the absence of a surviving spouse, the children would inherit everything. Where the decedent has no surviving spouse or children, but is survived by parents, the decedent’s parents would inherit everything. In the absence of parents, a spouse, or children, the decedent’s siblings, if any, would get everything. Based on a priority order stated in the statute, other blood relatives would be entitled to inherit if none of the aforementioned relatives exist.
No Contest Clause in New York will
A “no contest” or “in terrorem” clause in a will states that a beneficiary who unsuccessfully challenges the validity of the will forfeits their inheritance under the will. Testators include these clauses in their wills in order to dissuade beneficiaries from taking action against the estate to thwart the wishes of the testator and tie up the estate in costly litigation.
In New York no contest clauses are enforced unless there is probable cause and the purpose of the contest is to establish that the will is a forgery or that it was revoked by a later will. EPTL § 3-3.5.