You can overturn a will if you prove that the person making the will, known as the testator, lacked the mental capacity to create a valid will, meaning that he did not understand the general effect of the will. One form of diminished mental capacity is caused by a psychiatric illness known as delusional disorder.
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Delusional disorder is a type of mental illness in which a person has one mental cluster of irrational ideas, while conducting the rest of his life in a normal manner. The patient's delusion may focus on almost any area of his life. A person with delusional disorder may erroneously believe that someone famous is in love with him or that insects are crawling under his skin. The person's ideas may seem believable at first glance, and psychotherapy is typically necessary to help him detach from his delusion.
Who Can Sue
You can overturn a will, also known as contesting a will, if you have a direct economic interest in the estate that would be adversely affected if the will was carried out as it stands. A contestant is usually a relative who would have inherited from the estate if the testator had died without making a will, or a person who was a beneficiary under an earlier will, whose inheritance was reduced or eliminated by a subsequent will. Having the right to challenge a will is also known as "standing" to bring the lawsuit.
Contesting Will Procedure
Will contests are overseen by state probate courts, governed by special state laws called probate codes. Both the probate courts and the probate codes differ somewhat from one state to the next. You will need to review your state's probate code and probate court procedures to start a will contest. For example, in Texas, you would file a petition with the probate court describing reasons why the will should be set aside. Your case might then be sent to a legal mediator. If the mediator was not successful in bringing the parties involved in the will dispute to an agreement, your case would then go to trial.
Proving Delusional Disorder
During a trial you will have to convince the court that the testator persistently believed in ideas that had no rational basis in fact and that the delusional disorder affected how the testator disposed of his property in his will. If the delusional disorder did not affect how the testator disposed of his property, it is possible that the will cannot be overturned. For example, if the testator erroneously believed that a famous movie star was in love with him, but left his entire estate to his daughter and excluded his son for rational reasons unrelated to his delusion about the movie star, the testator's will would not likely be overturned. Some ways to prove the testator's delusional disorder include producing the testator's medical records and taking statements from witnesses regarding the testator's irrational beliefs and behavior.
A famous 2007 case in which a will was contested on the grounds of delusional disorder involved deceased British businessman Branislav Kostic, who left his entire fortune to the Conservative party because of his delusional belief that former Conservative party prime minister Margaret Thatcher was protecting the world from a takeover by satanic monsters. The judge ruled in favor of an earlier will written before Mr. Kostic developed mental problems, which left his entire estate to his son Zoran. American courts, which inherited British common law and sometimes consult its legal precedents, have produced a string of similar decisions.
References & Resources
- National Paralegal College: Will Contests
- The Telegraph: This Is The Way To Challenge A Will
- Cornell University Law School -- Legal Information Institute: Probate -- State Statutes
- Findlaw.com: State Probate Courts
- Texas Probate Litigation: How to Contest a Will in Texas?
- Psychology Today: Delusional Disorder
- The 'Lectric Law Library: Mental Capacity
- Psych Central: Delusional Disorder Treatment
- Law and Psychiatry: Delusional Disorder and the Law
- Elderlawanswers.com: How to Contest a Will
- Matter of Honigman Court of Appeals of New York, 8 N.Y.2d 244, 168 N.E.2d 676, 203 N.Y.S.2d 859 (1960)
- Rule of Law: Banks v. Goodfellow -- Delusions and Testamentary Freedom
- Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images