How to Contest a Will in Pennsylvania

by Beverly Bird

    There are several ways to contest a will in Pennsylvania. When a Pennsylvania will is first submitted for probate, it goes to the Register of Wills in the county where the testator, or the person who made the will, resided at the time of his death. If the will is valid, the Register accepts it and the probate process moves to Pennsylvania’s Orphan’s Court. When you object to a will determines how complicated the process will be.

    Step 1

    File a caveat, or a written objection to the will, with the Register of Wills while it is still in that office’s possession. The caveat must include your legal reasons for contesting the will, or grounds. Acceptable grounds in Pennsylvania include procedural mistakes in the making of the will, a fraudulent will or one that is a forgery, or the testator making the will the way he did because he was under duress from another beneficiary. When a caveat is filed, the Register cannot transfer the will to Orphan’s Court until it has heard your challenge.

    Step 2

    Appear before the Register of Wills to argue your position that the will is not valid. When the Register receives your objection, a date for the hearing will be set. The Register has full authority to decide the matter at this time. If you win, the will is denied probate and the estate is treated as though the testator died without a will. If you lose, the Register issues a decree for probate and transfers the will to Orphan’s Court.

    Step 3

    Appeal the Register’s decision in Orphan’s Court if you fail to block the will before a decree for probate is issued. You have one year to do this unless the executor and the beneficiaries object to giving you this much time. Pennsylvania’s laws favor the will at this time. Orphan’s Court assumes that it is valid because the Register of Wills has cleared it, allowing the executor or any other interested party to file an Order to Show Cause asking that your time be limited to three months. The executor will usually object on the grounds that a year would endanger the value of the estate’s assets.

    Tips & Warnings

    • The Pennsylvania Superior Court made two decisions in 2002 allowing someone who objects to the contents of a will to file a tort suit in civil court as opposed to having a will contest with the probate court. When you object to a will with the probate court, you are asking that the terms of the will be changed. When you file a tort action, you seek damages from another individual. This is called “tortious interference with inheritance,” and if you can prove that the person you are suing negatively influenced the making of the will and the amount of your inheritance, that person could be liable for paying you for any hardship you suffered because of it.
    • If the judge in Orphan’s Court does not think your appeal has any merit, he can enter something called a “nonsuit” against you, essentially throwing your appeal out of court before it is even heard. There may be associated fines and penalties. To protect against this possibility, the court may require you to post bond, an insurance policy that will pay the penalties and court costs if you lose your appeal.

    About the Author

    Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.

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