A will contest is the legal procedure for challenging a will. In most states, only those having a pecuniary interest in the will may object to it. Under this rule, a testator's sister-in-law may contest the will only if she stands to inherit more money if the court invalidates the challenged will or provision of the will.
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A last will and testament represents the testator's final comment on her life, and bereaved heirs can react emotionally to what appears to be wrongdoing or inequity. While will contest procedures vary among jurisdictions, common grounds for challenges include undue influence, fraud or the testator's incompetence at the time she signed the will. The executor must establish to the court's satisfaction that the will was properly executed -- signed by testator before the correct number of attesting witnesses. The person challenging a will or will provision must prove any alleged malfeasance.
Standing to Challenge
A will contest is expensive, and the estate pays hourly fees for the executor and for his attorneys to oppose it. To avoid depleting the estate needlessly, probate statutes require challengers to have a financial interest in the outcome. An heir devised a percentage of the estate is less likely to bring a frivolous challenge than someone who is "outside" the will and moved only by a sense of justice or revenge. An heir under the current will may challenge the will or a will provision if invalidation will increase her own share. An heir under a prior will may object to the current will if its invalidation moves the earlier will to probate. Since challenges are not limited to blood relations, a testator's sister-in-law can contest the will if she has a financial interest.
Once the executor files the will in probate, the sister-in-law files an objection, setting out her standing to contest and her grounds for challenge. Other heirs may file similar or different challenges. The court notifies interested parties and schedules a trial date. All sides attend the trial, offer evidence and present witnesses. The court may tell the parties its decision but, more likely, will take the matter under advisement and mail a written decision.
Will contests are procedurally complicated and often emotional. The sister-in-law must weigh her potential gain against attorney's fees and bad feelings. Another consideration is whether the will contains a no-contest clause. A no-contest clause is language in a will disinheriting any heir who challenges the will. States generally uphold no-contest clauses, although standards vary. If the current will contains a no-contest clause, the sister-in-law loses any bequest under the will if she brings a challenge.