Is Your Last Will the Last Word?
The most troublesome type of estate litigation is the "caveat proceeding." Also known as "Will Contests," these lawsuits often feature divisive family feuds over the validity of a Last Will and Testament brought by those seeking to change the manner in which estate assets are divided.
These persons, called “Caveators,” typically challenge the Will on three grounds: (1) that certain legal formalities were not followed when the Will was signed; (2) that the Will was replaced by more recent document in which the deceased’s property was to be distributed in a different way; (3) that the deceased lacked the required level mental capacity when the Will was signed; or (4) that the deceased was coerced or subjected to undue influence when the Will was created.
Beyond the formal legal requirements for a caveat proceeding, there are several practical considerations that one must consider before contesting the validity of a will. Like many areas of the law, circumstantial evidence can help to determine whether a will is subject to legal challenge. Factors to consider include: (1) significant variation in the distribution of property from a previous will; (2) a demented, or otherwise cognitively impaired testator; (3) a testator who leaves the majority of her assets to a caretaker or other person who may have exercised undue influence at the end stages of her life; (4) a will prepared by someone other than the decedent’s family attorney. The presence of one or more of these factors near the end of the decedent’s life, are strong indicators that your loved one’s will may be legally deficient. Once established that there may have been some improper activity surrounding the preparation of the will, the inquiry then shifts to the requirements for executing a valid will, and consideration of improper actions which may form the basis for a will contest.
Even if a Caveator proves the invalidity of a Will, this does not necessarily mean that this person will inherit money or property. Because an invalid Will is treated as if it never existed, courts will adhere to the terms of an earlier, valid Will. However, if no earlier Will existed, the assets of the estate would be distributed according to complex transfer rules set forth in the Maryland Annotated Code.