Under Pennsylvania law, anyone who is of sound mind and at least 18 years old can make a will. You can only contest a will if you have legal standing to do so, and if you do have standing, you must demonstrate that the will was not legally valid or that it should be set aside on other grounds.
Who Has Standing
Even if you're absolutely certain a will isn't legitimate, there's nothing you can do about it if you don't have standing. You must be able to show that you'll suffer harm if the will is honored and the estate is divided up according to its terms. For example, if your father dies and leaves you nothing in his will, you would have standing to contest it because under Pennsylvania's laws for intestate succession, children inherit a substantial portion of the estate when the deceased doesn't leave a will. An invalid will would harm them by depriving them of the rightful inheritance they would have received if he had died intestate.
A family relationship may not be enough to give you standing, at least not by itself. In the 2012 case of Dupont Will, a Pennsylvania court ruled that a niece and nephew didn't have standing to contest their deceased uncle's will because he'd chosen not to leave them anything in either of his two previous wills. The intestate succession laws wouldn't have left them much either. With nothing substantial to lose, they had no standing.
Grounds for a Will Contest
After you've established that you have standing, you must also show that you have grounds for contesting the will. The law only requires that the testator -- the person writing the will -- must be of sound mind, but in practice, the court might accept other scenarios as grounds for a will contest:
- A person isn't of sound mind to make a will if his mental capacity is diminished to the point where he doesn't realize what he's doing. For example, a person suffering from dementia might not remember important family members he would have wanted to include if he was of sound mind.
- A person may not be of sound mind to make a will if he is unduly influenced by another person to write his will in a certain way, such as by a controlling partner or caretaker.
- A will may be invalid for reasons such as fraud, forgery or failure to prepare the will correctly. For example, if someone tricked the deceased into signing the will or forged her signature on the document, the will isn't valid.
- A will may be invalid if it is in violation of a legally binding contract, such as a written promise to leave an inheritance in exchange for help with medical care.
The burden of proof in all these cases is high and you can't successfully challenge a will without evidence to show your assertions are correct.
Read More: Can I Contest My Dad's Will?
Procedure for Contesting
There's more than one way to contest a will in Pennsylvania. Different rules apply to each.
- If you're the deceased's spouse, you can elect to take one third of his estate instead if his will leaves you less. You have six months from the date the will goes into probate to make this decision, or six months from the date of death, whichever comes last.
- Probate is the process of officially dividing up the estate according to the terms of the will. If you have standing and grounds to challenge, you can challenge the will during the probate proceedings by filing a caveat with the county's Register of Wills. You may have to post a bond to prevent your caveat from expiring in 10 days and to cover any court costs that result because you filed the caveat.
- If the will has already been probated, you can file an appeal from probate in Orphan's Court. You normally have a year to file this appeal, but the court may limit this to three months in some cases.
Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.