Under Pennsylvania law, a party can have one or more grounds for contesting a will. A beneficiary, the person who is set to receive property under the will, should file an informal or formal caveat with the register of wills.
The register is the officer of the county charged with keeping records for the probate court in the county in which the testator, the person with the estate, died.
A caveat is a formal notice to the register to suspend the will going through the probate process before the beneficiary has an opportunity to be heard regarding the will. The probate process is the payment of debts and distributions of assets in the deceased person’s will.
Grounds for Contesting a Will in Pennsylvania
Grounds for contesting the validity of the will include:
- Forgery: False creation or material alteration of a will with the intent to defraud someone. Forgery can involve signing the will for the testator or adding new content such as additional pages to a will without testator’s knowledge or authorization. Forgery can invalidate all or part of a will.
- Lack of testamentary capacity or incapacity: Testator lacked the physical or mental capacity to manage their affairs when making the will. This invalidates the will.
- Mistake: Such as testator signing the wrong will.
- Fraud: Such as pretending that a document is not a will when it is actually a will, when getting testator to sign it.
- Improper execution or lack of due execution: Creation of a will in an improper way, so that it does not have legal effect.
- Revocation: Testator or person acting at their direction and under their authority declared will invalid.
- Undue influence: Engaging in excessive persuasion to cause testator to act or refrain from certain actions regarding the will.
For example, beneficiaries, those persons set to receive property under a will, would exercise undue influence if they refused to help the testator unless the testator gave them property through the will.
Standing to Contest a Will
In order to contest a will, an individual must have legal standing. This means they would be disadvantaged if the will went through probate.
A beneficiary has standing to contest if they would receive nothing under the will or less than they would have under a prior will, or if there were no will. Parties who would not receive property under the will lack standing to contest the will.
Time to Contest a Will
A person who wants to contest a will in Pennsylvania must file a caveat before the probate process begins.
When a person files a caveat, the register must not delay the probate of the will for more than 10 days after the filing of the petition for probate; the grant of letters of administration (documents that grant an individual permission to access and manage the decedent's estate); or after the filing of the caveat, whichever is later.
The exception is if within a 10-day period of filing the caveat, a beneficiary files a bond with the register with a sufficient surety, not less than $500 or more than $5,000. This bond is for the payment of costs that the register may order against the person who files the caveat.
Filing a Surety Bond
If the person contesting the will does not file a bond within the 10-day period, the register considers the caveat abandoned. Alternatively, the court may extend the time for cause shown.
The register or the court on appeal must determine the amount of costs made necessary because of a caveat and directs who shall pay the costs. If the person who filed the caveat must pay the costs, the person who suffered damages can bring suit on the bond.
Time for Filing an Appeal
If the register of wills has cleared the will to go through the probate process, the person who wants to contest the will typically has one year to file an appeal. The clock starts from the time that the probate court issues letters of administration, but the court has the power to limit the time for an appeal to three months.
The court may also limit the time upon the petition, or request, of a party with an interest in the case. The court may choose to limit the time for an appeal if the judge overseeing the case thinks the beneficiaries would be disadvantaged by the delay of the probate process.
Proof Required to Contest a Will
A person contesting a will must present proof of mistake, lack of capacity, revocation, forgery, fraud, improper execution or undue influence that meet the clear and convincing standard of proof. This means the evidence is more than 50 percent likely to be true.
Evidence can take many forms, including:
- Testimony in the form of written or spoken statements from family members, friends or a loved one, like a former partner, who can share what they know about the testator’s state of mind.
- Testimony from individuals present when the testator signed the will.
- Testimony from the testator’s treating physicians.
- Testimony from the person who drafted the will.
- Medical records relating to the testator’s lucidity at the time they signed the will.
- Expert testimony from individuals who can speak on matters such as why the will appears to be forged.
No Contest Clauses
A will can contain a clause disallowing a will contest. A person who contests a will may receive less than they would have if they did not contest the will, or receive nothing at all.
According to Pennsylvania statutes, a provision in a will that penalizes a person for contesting the will is unenforceable if there is probable cause for instituting proceedings. The term "instituting proceedings" means contesting the will.
How an Attorney Can Help
An attorney with experience in estate planning, such as an estates and trusts attorney, can advise a person who wants to contest a will about what documents constitute evidence of problems like forgery or fraud. They can also represent the person in an appeal, arguing on their behalf. Further, the attorney can explain the potential consequences of a will contest.
Frequently Asked Questions
- All wills are available to the public. A person who wants a copy of a will to file a caveat or appeal should contact the register of wills for the county. The register of wills keeps the original will.
- A will does not expire or become invalid due to the passage of time. A will takes effect when the testator dies. If the testator made multiple wills, the last will that they created before they died is the only one that is valid, assuming that the last will was executed properly and fulfilled Pennsylvania's requirements for a valid will.
- A testator may revoke or destroy a will at any time before they die. The will that the register of wills allows to proceed to probate becomes the last will of the testator.
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.