How to Contest a Will in Pennsylvania

Bringing a Will contest claim in Pennsylvania should be carefully considered before taking any legal action. Judges do not tolerate claims that have no merit and that are intended only to delay the proper administration of an estate. Before proceeding with a claim to contest a Will, the facts and circumstances of the case should be analyzed by an estate and probate attorney in Pennsylvania.

Will Probate – Pennsylvania Register Of Wills Office

When a Last Will and Testament is offered for probate, the Will is presented to the Office of the Register of Wills in the county where the decedent last resided.  The Office of the Register of Wills determines whether the Will is the Will of the decedent and whether the basic requirements of a valid Will are satisfied.  Specifically, the Will is reviewed to determine whether it was signed by the decedent, whether witnesses have attested to the signing, and whether the person named as the Personal Representative is the person who is requesting the Letters Testamentary.  If the Register of Wills accepts the Will as valid, the Register will issue Letters Testamentary to the Personal Representative.  The Personal Representative will then administer the estate pursuant to the provisions of the Will and Pennsylvania law.

Concerns About A Last Will And Testament

Family members often question the validity of the Will.  Concerns arise when a family member is unexpectedly left out of the Will entirely or a person’s share of the estate is much less than what he or she was supposed to receive in the decedent’s prior will.  When this happens, it is quite normal for a person to question whether the Will truly reflects the decedent’s wishes.  In this situation, the person must think about the facts and circumstances surrounding the Will signing, the health and mental capacity of the decedent when the Will was created and other things that may not add up or that would suggest that something may be amiss.

Initial Determination

The “testator” is a person who creates a Will.  Since the Court will presume that the Will accurately represents the testator’s wishes, a person who wants to challenge the Will must develop a theory as to why the Will is not valid and gather evidence that supports the theory.  A theory will not hold up in Court unless there is evidence that supports it. 

short guide on contesting a will in pa including grounds necessary for success

Grounds For Contesting A Will In PA

A theory must be rooted in a legal basis to challenge or contest a Will.  The most common grounds to contest a Will in Pennsylvania are the following:

  • Diminished or Lack of Testamentary Capacity
  • Undue Influence
  • Fraud
  • Forgery
  • Mistake
  • Insane Delusion

Standing To Contest A Will

If one or more of the grounds are apparent and supported by evidence, then the next issue is whether an individual has “standing” to bring a Will contest action.  A person has standing if the person is aggrieved by a decree of the Register of Wills. For example, if a Will is offered for probate and the share a person receives in the Will is less than the person’s share in a prior Will or through Pennsylvania intestacy laws, then the person will have standing to assert a claim. 

Evidence To Prove A Will Contest Claim

Lawyers with experience in these matters know that successfully contesting a Will is not always easy since the presumption is that the Will expresses the desires and intentions of the testator.  What makes these cases difficult is that the best witness, who is often the testator, is now deceased.  However, testimony from family members, witnesses to the Will signing, treating physicians, and the person who drafted the will is always helpful.  Other evidence may include medical records and testimony from experts.

A person contesting the Will must present enough evidence to the court to prove the alleged claims. Each of the grounds for contesting a Will have their own unique elements to prove in order to succeed. For example, in order to make a Will, a person must have “testamentary capacity”. This means that the testator must be at least 18 years of age and of “sound mind” to make a Will.  More specifically, the testator had testamentary capacity if at the time the testator signs the Will, the testator had an intelligent knowledge regarding the property he possesses and of what he desires to do with that property, even though his memory may be impaired by age or disease. To prove a claim for lack of testamentary capacity, one would have to present enough evidence to prove that a person was not of sound mind.  

Caveat V. Appeal From Probate

Procedurally, a person has two options for bringing an action to challenge the validity of the Will.  Both options have advantages and disadvantages and, as with any legal strategy, a person should seek the advice of counsel.

  • Caveat.  Prior to the probate of a Will, a person may initiate an attack on the Will by filing a formal Caveat with the Register of Wills.  The Caveat is a request for the Register of Wills not to probate the Will until the person who files the Caveat is given a hearing before the Register.  The Register may accept an informal Caveat if local practice permits it. A formal Caveat is a legal document with allegations, facts, and a request for relief.  The Caveat is advantageous because it precludes the personal representative from qualifying.

  • Appeal from Probate.  An Appeal from Probate is an alternative to the Caveat.  Any party in interest who is aggrieved by a decree from the Register, or a fiduciary whose estate or trust is so aggrieved, may appeal.  The Appeal from Probate is common after the Register has already issued Letters Testamentary.

Other Considerations When Contesting A Will

Before a Will contest claim is commenced, the lawyer and the client must feel confident that the evidence has a likelihood of establishing a proper claim.  Will contest claims can be complex and time consuming, since the parties to the action are required to comply with rules of procedure, gather of evidence, discovery, preparation for hearing and a formal hearing.  Also, Pennsylvania law requires formal Caveats and Appeals to be filed within certain time limits.  Therefore, parties believing they have a successful Will contest claim should proceed expeditiously.

Pennsylvania Will Contest – The Martin Law Firm, P.C.

If you wish to contest a Will in Pennsylvania or if you are a Personal Representative who needs to defend an Appeal from Probate, you should contact an experienced attorney immediately.  Contact the Martin Law Firm today for a free case evaluation.  This includes a free discussion about your particular situation and we can advise you on how we can help.  Call us today at 215-646-3980.

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