Will Contest

Before the assets of the estate of a decedent can be distributed to the beneficiaries named in their will, their estate must go through a process call probate. Probate is initiated when the executor petitions the court to open a probate case and files the will. The court will only probate a valid will. If someone files a challenge to the legitimacy of a proffered will, the probate court judge will have to sort out allegations and determine whether the will is indeed the valid. A legal action to challenge a will is called a will contest.

Who Can Contest It Will

While there may be many people who question the validity of the will, only certain people have the legal right to file a formal objection to a will. To do so, the objectant must have standing, meaning they must be an “interested party.” An interested party is someone whose financial position would be directly impacted if the will is invalidated, including beneficiaries named in the will, beneficiaries of a prior will, and intestate heirs.

Procedure for Contesting a Will

There are two ways to object to a will. The objectant can ask the court to set aside an informal probate which has already been closed or the objectant can ask the court to halt a probate that is in process and make a decision on the objections. The petition must include the objections. Utah Code Ann. § 75-3-401.

Grounds for Contesting a Will

When seeking the court’s help in addressing a problem, the petitioner must have a legally acceptable reason for doing so. A will contest is no different. Anger, disappointment, surprise, and jealousy may be the emotions that the petitioner experienced after learning the contents of a will. None of those are legal grounds for contesting a will. The possible grounds for invalidating a will include:

  • The testator lacked legal capacity. A testator must be at least 18 years old and must be of “sound mind” when they executed the will for it to be valid. This means that they must have been mentally competent. Utah Code Ann. § 75-2-501
  • The testator was under undue influence. If someone who has a close, dependent relationship takes advantage of the situation and exerts illegal influence over a testator who is vulnerable and persuades them to make a will that the testator would not have otherwise made, that will would not be enforceable, but would be invalid due to undue influence.
  • The will was not properly executed. To meet the statutory requirements, a will must meet certain formal requirements such as being written and not oral. It has to be signed by the testator. The exception is that the testator can direct another person to sign it for them, but it must be done in the testator’s conscious presence. The will must also be signed by at least 2 competent witnesses. Utah Code Ann. § 75-2-502.

Outcomes of a Will Contest

If an objectant is successful and the court finds that the will is not valid, the court will not probate that will. If another will is presented and the court determines it to be valid, the court will admit it to probate. Otherwise, the decedent would be intestate and the personal representative must follow Utah’s intestate succession laws and distribute the decedent’s asset’s to their next of kin. Utah Code Ann. § 75-2-101.

Under intestate succession, if the decedent has a surviving spouse, and if the decedent has no descendants (children, grandchildren, etc.), or if all their descendants are also the surviving spouse’s descendants, then all the decedent’s property would go to the surviving spouse. If the decedent was married and has descendants who are not also the surviving spouse’s descendants, the surviving spouse receives one-half of the balance of the deceased person’s property. The remaining one-half of the decedent’s property passes to their descendants.

Penalty Clauses

A “no contest clause” is a stipulation in a will requiring a beneficiary to forfeit their testamentary gift if they challenge the validity of the will. Utah law specifically states that penalty clauses will not be enforced unless the challenge of the will is frivolous. Utah Code Ann. § 75-2-515.

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