Articles Posted in Will Contest

Estate planning in Texas can be a stressful process, no matter the circumstances surrounding it. When there is possible familial conflict, however, estate planning and probate can become even more tenuous for everyone involved. To avoid family feuds, we at McCulloch & Miller recommend a few strategies that can help steer your loved ones clear of frustrating fights and emotionally charged conversations.

Plan Ahead

The biggest piece of advice we can give you in order to keep everything (and everyone) at peace is to plan ahead. By drafting your estate plans early and by making sure everything is set in stone as soon as possible, your family can grow accustomed to the preferences you articulate in those documents. Unfortunately, the alternative is that loved ones will be caught by surprise, which rarely goes over well.

Set a Family Meeting

Once you have finalized your estate planning documents, set a meeting with your family so that everyone can understand how you have organized your assets. Make sure your loved ones feel included by asking them if they have questions or if they need any additional information. By communicating clearly throughout the process, you can make sure to do everything in your power to help your family avoid a high-stress situation down the road.

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Unfortunately, when a loved one leaves behind friends and family members, he or she also leaves behind the possibility that there will be disagreements about how to distribute his or her assets. Even when a decedent writes a will or other detailed estate plan, beneficiaries can often disagree about how to interpret the documents or how the money and property should be dispersed. On today’s blog, we talk about ways of resolving estate disputes, which tend to come up when beneficiaries don’t all agree about how to effectuate a loved one’s will.

If you and other possible beneficiaries of a will have found yourselves disagreeing about how to interpret a loved one’s will, the first thing you can do is try to resolve the dispute outside of court. You could, for example, hire a mediator that could hold sessions for the group and try to get everyone to a place where they agree. Sometimes, individuals that wish to contest the contents or interpretation of a will can be persuaded not to pursue their claims simply through the mediation process.

If the group is still at an impasse, any individual that wants to challenge a will can file a lawsuit with the probate court. Any challenges must be filed within two years of the will being admitted to the probate court. Importantly, only those with something called “standing” are legally able to challenge a will; essentially, this means that a party contesting a will must be either the decedent’s spouse, family member, or creditor. Those without any real grounds to file the lawsuit will generally not be heard by the probate court.

Even the most diligent of individuals may not anticipate a contest to their will’s validity when estate planning. Planning for your own potential incompetence or fights about your intention between family members can be upsetting and may even seem far-fetched. Unfortunately, planning for the worst-case scenario can help avoid major headaches in the probate process.

Why Can a Will Be Contested?

Understanding the ways a will can be contested can help in the planning process. Common objections can be, as noted above, that the will maker (or testator) was incompetent or was suffering a delusion. This can encompass a wide variety of circumstances, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, drug or alcohol use, an array of mental disorders such as schizophrenia and depression, and some physical ailments that implicate capacity.

In addition, objectors can claim undue influence or other outside factors like fraud and coercion or duress or mistake. Courts will consider all relevant factors when determining if undue influence is present, including circumstantial evidence that does not directly prove the fraudulent behavior but, taken as part of the whole story, indicate a problem existed.

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When a family member or close friend is upset by the contents of a deceased person’s will, they may contest the will’s validity. The most popular argument is to claim the will is invalid because of the person’s mental incompetence or that there was undue influence exerted upon them.

In a recent Texas appellate case, the court was tasked with determining whether the deceased’s most recent will should be admitted to probate after her sons argued their mother’s dementia meant she did not have the mental competence to execute the will. Ultimately, the court ruled that the deceased could understand she was making a will, so the will was admitted to probate—meaning the court will divide the deceased’s assets according to the will.

In this case, the deceased—before her death—created several wills over the last few years, but the last will left her estate to her one son and excluded her other two sons entirely. After her death, those sons argued this will was invalid because the deceased had dementia which made her incapable of understanding she was making a new will that would invalidate the prior ones.

For many Texans, the thought of their family members fighting after their death because of the contents of their will is something they cannot bear. In many cases, this fighting can lead to a family member contesting the validity of the person’s will. One solution to this potential issue is to include a no-contest clause within a person’s Last Will and Testament. A no-contest clause provides for the disinheritance of an heir if they challenge the validity of the will. Because there are details specific to a no-contest clause, along with the ability to contest a no-contest clause, Texans should be aware of the purpose and effect of a no-contest clause before incorporating it into their estate plan.

What is a No-Contest Clause?

A no-contest clause prohibits beneficiaries of the will from challenging its terms. In the will, the no-contest clause will state that if a beneficiary contests the will and loses this challenge, the beneficiary will receive nothing. This greatly disincentives people from contesting the will if they are merely unhappy with the terms of the will. Instead, beneficiaries are likely to only challenge the will if malfeasance or manipulation occurred. However, if a beneficiary challenges the will and is successful, the no-contest clause would be voided along with the will.

While Houston estate planning may seem complicated, completing this process pays off in the long run. For individuals who start multiple wills throughout their lifetime—or have started a few drafts of wills but never completed one—a probate court battle will likely ensue after their passing. Family members may argue over which will is valid, especially if the details of the will benefit them more than another version of the will. This, unfortunately, can lead to bitterness and feuding family dynamics that are hard to overcome. Because of this, individuals should draft a comprehensive estate plan—and contact a Houston experienced estate planning attorney if they wish to make changes at a later time.

In the estate battle of legendary singer Aretha Franklin, her sons are disputing how her estate should be run—and which handwritten document is actually her will. According to a recent report, at the time of the singer’s death, her family assumed that she did not have a will. However, over the past two years, a few handwritten documents have emerged—which may represent two or three different wills—along with a few documents entitled “The Will of Aretha Franklin” that are stamped “draft” and do not include the singer’s signature. While a court has not yet decided which of these documents—if any—constitutes Franklin’s will, this will likely be a lengthy and expensive court battle.

Validity of Multiple or Holographic Wills

Individuals who are considering drafting a will should consult with a Houston attorney to ensure that their document is legally binding and effectively communicates their wishes. Wills provide representatives and loved ones with crucial guidance on how to name executors, appoint guardians for children and pets, and distribute property after someone dies. Many people fail to create wills or attempt to draft these documents themselves; however, doing so can lead to many issues and conflicts. You should contact an experienced Houston area estate planning attorney to ensure that your final wishes are properly executed.

Each state has specific requirements that a will must comply with to be legally binding. In Texas, wills are valid if the testator is at least 18-years-old, of sound mind, and there were at least two credible witnesses present at the signing. In cases where the will is oral, there must be three credible witnesses. Many Texans believe that drafting a will is sufficient to make it legally binding; however, there are often additional documents and notary signatures that must be executed. Some documents include, but are not limited to, healthcare power of attorney designations, financial power of attorney designations, and disposition of remains and property directives.

Individuals who chose to write their own wills often fail to meet all of the requirements that make a will binding. Wills should include the appropriate language, correct signatures, and account for any property or possessions that people may fight over. Although, do-it-yourself and handwritten wills might be valid, they often create challenges for loved ones as the will passes through probate court.

Computer security
With COVID-19 impacting more and more Americans, individuals across the country are scrambling to set up wills and end-of-life directives.

Over the last two weeks, online will companies have seen an explosion in users, according to the article, “Coronavirus Pandemic Triggers Rush by Americans to Make Online Wills,” published by

However, as online wills grow in popularity, Houston estate and elder lawyers increasingly caution against using them, for several reasons.

2.17.20A will and a trust are separate legal documents that typically share a common goal of facilitating a unified estate plan. While these two items ideally work in tandem, since they are separate documents, they sometimes run in conflict with one another–either accidentally or intentionally.

A revocable trust, commonly called a living trust, is created during the lifetime of the grantor. This type of trust can be changed at any time, while the grantor is still alive. Because revocable trusts become operative before the will takes effect at death, the trust takes priority over the will, if there is any discrepancy between the two when it comes to assets titled in the name of the trust or that designate the trust as the beneficiary (e.g., life insurance).

A recent Investopedia article asks “What Happens When a Will and a Revocable Trust Conflict?” The article explains that a trust is a separate entity from an individual. When the grantor or creator of a revocable trust dies, the assets in the trust are not part of the decedent grantor's probate process.

10.30.19Contesting a will is not for the faint of heart, but this is the process that lets a person legally challenge a will.

When there’s a will, there’s a way to challenge it, known as a “will contest.” If someone dies and they had a will, their estate goes through the probate process. The probate court is the jurisdiction for challenging a will.

Understanding how this works is important, if you’ve been named as a beneficiary of an estate or you’re concerned that your own will may one day be contested.

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