It is an eventuality that virtually all of us will face sometime during our lives, the loss of a loved one. Whether this loved one is one of your parents, a sibling, a relative, or a friend, litigation may arise concerning the Probate of their Will in order to administer their Estate. Estate litigation is often emotional, costly and is similar in the emotions it evokes to that of a divorce proceeding. Often times, the Executor of the Estate may use the Estate’s assets to defend the Will. On the other hand, a contestant of the Will must often pay their own counsel fees with only a possibility of being reimbursed by the Estate. As such, a person challenging a Will should first evaluate the value of the Estate and their potential gain as compared to the expenses they may incur in seeking that relief . In addition, a party should consider the emotional trauma which is very prevalent in Estate litigation. An Executor of the Estate or beneficiary whose bequest is being challenged has no other alternative than to defend against the challenge being brought against their interest or a challenge against the Will itself.
In the State of New Jersey, there are essentially two ways in which an individual may challenge a Will. The first way is to allege that the decedent lacked the requisite capacity the date the Will was executed. This is a fairly low standard to meet, as the decedent need only be aware that he/she possesses assets, and in addition, that he/she wishes to transfer these assets to certain other individuals. In levying a challenge in this regard, the Court may review medical records and other information concerning the decedent’s physical and mental health in order to determine if this individual possessed the requisite mental capacity on the day the Will was executed. The medical records are relevant as they may demonstrate physical or mental conditions which could suggest that the decedent may have lacked the capacity to execute a Will on the date the Will was executed. This often involves the need for expert witnesses to review medical records, and thereafter, to render their opinion as to the capacity of the decedent on the date the Will was executed.
The other way in which an individual may challenge a Will concerns an allegation of undue influence. Simply put, undue influence means that the Will does not reflect the true intentions of the decedent, but instead, reflects the wishes of an individual who asserted their influence over the Testator, thereby rendering the Will inconsistent with the Testator’s true wishes. In order to prove a claim of undue influence, the contestant must first establish that there existed a confidential relationship between the decedent and the party which is alleged to have unduly influenced the Testator. A confidential relationship exists when the Testator and another individual shared a relationship where trust or confidence is naturally reposed by the decedent with this individual. Another instance under which a confidential relationship arises is in an attorney/client relationship where there is a fiduciary relationship between the parties.
Once the contestant of the Will has established the existence of a confidential relationship, he/she must establish suspicious circumstances with regard to the creation and execution of the Will. Once this has been achieved, the Court can shift the burden of proof upon the proponent of the Will to demonstrate the validity of this document.
After a lawsuit has been commenced, the Court will often recommend that the parties consider mediation in an attempt to resolve the matter without the need for additional litigation. Often, the parties are able to resolve the litigation through Mediation without the parties incurring additional expenses. If a case cannot be resolved through mediation, the case will move forward through discovery, and thereafter, to Trial. Once an Estate litigation matter is scheduled for Trial, the parties should be aware that the Trial will not be heard before a jury, but rather is decided by a Chancery Judge that hears probate matters. Once the Judge renders his/her decision, either side may make an application for fees to the Estate.
If the party prevails in contesting the Will, the Will could revert to a previous Will, if said document still exists, or the individual could be deemed as having died without a Will. Thereafter, the Court may appoint an independent Executor if the named Executor is disqualified. If the Will is not invalidated by the Court, then it will be probated in the manner which had been sought to be probated by the Executor originally. Thereafter, the Estate litigation will conclude.