A will is a legal document designed to leave instructions as to how a testator wishes their estate to be distributed after they pass away. In Pennsylvania, once the testator passes away, the process of probate and estate administration begins with the filing of the will with the Register of Wills. Note that the Orphans’ Court has jurisdiction over probate cases in Pennsylvania. The Register of Wills is an elected or appointed individual who is charged with probating wills, granting of letters to a personal representative, and related matters. 23 Pa.C.S. § 901. Before the administration process can move forward, the will must be validated and admitted to probate.
A will contest is a common type of litigation that occurs during the probate process. It occurs when someone files a written objection to the will and requests that the court not allow the will to be probated. Typically, it is a family member who initiates a will contest because they feel as if they did not receive their fair share of the decedent’s estate. However, a will contest must be based on more than feeling cheated out of an inheritance. It must be based on legitimate legal grounds such as lack of testamentary capacity, improper execution, undue influence, or fraud. In addition, while family members are often the objectant in a will contest, anyone who is an interested party has standing to object to a will.
In Pennsylvania valid reasons for a will contest include:
- Lack of testamentary capacity. To be competent to execute a will, the decedent must be at least 18 years old and must be mentally competent. If there is evidence that they were mentally incompetent, the will would be invalid. 23 Pa.C.S. § 2501
- Undue influence. A testator is subject to undue influence if someone who has a confidential relationship with the testator used pressure or influence, but not force, to intentionally persuade a vulnerable testator to make a will favorable to the influencer.
- Improper execution. A will is only valid if it was executed as required by law. In Pennsylvania, in general a will must be in writing and must be signed by the testator at the end. In limited circumstances a mark made by the testator or a signature by another would be acceptable. 23 Pa.C.S. § 2502
- Fraud. Fraud in the making of a will occurs when a person intentionally misrepresents something to the testator that convinces the testator to make a will that they would not have otherwise made.
Consequences of a Will Contest in Pennsylvania
If the objectant loses, the court will move forward and admit the will to probate. If the court finds that the will is invalid, unless there is a prior or later valid will, the decedent would be intestate. This does not necessarily mean that the decedent’s assets will go to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has a set of provisions known as the law of intestate succession which describes how an intestate decedent’s estate must be distributed. 20 Pa.C.S. § 2101 et seq. While the priority of intestate succession is to ensure that a decedent’s surviving spouse and children are provided for, how the estate is distributed depends on which relatives survive the decedent.
If the decedent has a surviving spouse, the amount they will receive depends on whether the decedent is also survived by children or parents. 20 Pa.C.S. § 2102
If the decedent has a surviving spouse, but no children or surviving parents, the surviving spouse receives the decedent’s entire estate. However, if the decedent has a surviving spouse, at least one surviving parent, but no children, the surviving spouse would be entitled to the first $30,000.00 of the estate, and 50% of the remaining estate. The decedent’s parents’ would inherit the rest. If the decedent has a surviving spouse and children, they would share in the estate. If the decedent was survived by their parents, but had no children nor a surviving spouse, then the parents would receive the entire estate.
A decedent’s assets will only escheat to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania if the decedent does not have any blood relatives.
Penalty Clause for Will Contest
A penalty clause is a clause that can invalidate a will if a beneficiary engages in the conduct prohibited by the clause, typically contesting the will. Pennsylvania law prohibits the enforcement of penalty clauses as long as there is probable cause to challenge the will. 20 Pa.C.S. §2521