Contesting a will in Texas probate court
A will is meant to represent the final wishes of the deceased. As such, Texas courts are reluctant to hear any challenges to a will. The decedent is, of course, no longer available for a discussion of the problem, and an unhappy heir’s only recourse is a lawsuit challenging the disputed provisions.
Such lawsuits are usually called “will contests,” and the legal grounds for a will contest may help a person decide whether to institute a will contest.
Persons eligible to file a will contest
Only certain people can commence a will contest. This group includes beneficiaries named in the will, fiduciaries named in the will, and people who would otherwise be eligible to inherit the decedent’s property but have been left out of the will or are given an inheritance smaller than they would have received had the deceased left no will.
Grounds for contesting the validity of a Texas will
Texas law provides four major grounds for contesting a will:
- Lack of formalities: To be valid, a Texas will must be in writing, signed by the testator, signed by two witnesses who are each at least 14 years of age, and who signed the will in their own writing and in the presence of the testator. The lack of any of these steps can lead to a will being ruled to be invalid.
- Lack of testamentary capacity: A person making a will must understand the legal effect of the will. The lack of such understanding – called “lack of testamentary capacity” – may lead a judge to declare the will to be invalid. The person contesting the will may prove lack of testamentary capacity by introducing medical evidence that the decedent was mentally incapacitated by dementia or some similar ailment when they signed the will, i.e., that they did not comprehend the legal effect of the will.
- Undue influence: Proving undue influence requires evidence that the decedent was influenced by a third party to make an inappropriate bequest that favored the alleged influencer. Proof of undue influence usually rests on testimony showing that the maker of the will had a close relationship with the alleged influencer that caused the maker to include a provision that benefited the influencer.
- Fraud or forgery: A will or a specific bequest in the will may be ruled to be invalid if the person contesting the will demonstrates that the bequest was the product of someone making a fraudulent misrepresentation to the testator and the reliance of the testator upon that misrepresentation.
Will contests are notoriously difficult cases. Still, they can be necessary to avoid injustice.