Will Contests: Understanding and Mitigating Risks in Estate Planning

May 3, 2024
Bradley Campbell
Will contests in Mineola
In Mineola, Texas, and across the nation, will disputes can arise even in the most carefully planned estates. This article explores effective strategies for both preventing and addressing will contests, with a focus on the role of forfeiture or no-contest and preventing claims of undo influence. 
Bradley Campbell Tyler and Mineola TX Lawyer
Bradley Campbell
Bradley Campbell has over 35 years of experience. A trusted advisor and counselor, Attorney Campbell will help you find solutions for your case by focusing on personal attention, communication, and professionalism. If you need an attorney for probate, business law, or real estate with the experience and understanding to serve you with the individualized care and attention that your case deserves. Attorney Campbell provides consultations throughout the week at our convenient locations in Tyler, TX and Mineola, TX.

What Triggers a Will Contest?

A will contest can be initiated for several reasons, such as allegations that the testator (the person who made the will) lacked mental capacity, was unduly influenced, or that the will was not executed properly. High-profile cases, like those of John Lennon or James Brown, illustrate that even sophisticated estate plans of the wealthy can be vulnerable to disputes. In Mineola, understanding these triggers can help residents and their attorneys craft more resilient estate plans.

The Role of No-Contest Clauses in Texas

In Texas, the misunderstanding that no-contest clauses are not enforceable could not be further from the truth. Despite changes to the Probate Code in 2009, now codified under Texas’ Estates Code § 254.005, the enforcement of these clauses remains robust. This section of the law clarifies rather than alters the longstanding common law stance, affirming that forfeiture or no-contest clauses in wills and trusts retain their power.

Understanding Forfeiture Clauses in Texan Wills

Forfeiture, or no-contest clauses, are designed to prevent beneficiaries from contesting a will by posing a significant risk: the possibility of losing their inheritance. In Texas, these clauses are fully enforceable, provided the will has been properly executed. The statute ensures that a beneficiary who challenges a will and loses may forfeit their right to inherit.

However, it’s crucial to note that these clauses are not absolute. A court can override a no-contest clause if it finds that the challenge was made in good faith and with just cause. This means that if there are legitimate concerns about the validity of the will, such as undue influence or lack of capacity, the court may allow the contest without the risk of forfeiture.

Read More: Minimize Family Feuds about Your Inheritance with Your Last Will and Testament

Who Can Contest a Will in Texas?

To bring a contest, one must be an "interested party" with a direct, pecuniary interest affected by the will’s probate. This typically includes family members like spouses and children, or others who stand to inherit under previous estate documents. Additionally, any party contesting a will bears the responsibility of proving their status as an interested person.

In Mineola and throughout Texas, it's essential for estate planners and beneficiaries to understand these nuances to better navigate the complexities of estate planning and probate processes.

Preventative Strategies to Mitigate Will Contests

A no-contest clause can be a powerful deterrent for a beneficiary who believes they are entitled to more than the share provided, if they know that simply filing the challenge will forfeit even that share. However, it isn’t a deterrent for a relative omitted from the estate plan. 

One of the most common grounds for a will dispute is claiming undue influence by another person.  To secure your estate against potential disputes and prove that you created your plan without undo influence of another person, consider implementing the following measures:

  1. Medical Evaluations: Have the testator undergo evaluations by medical professionals to certify mental capacity, documenting these assessments as part of the estate planning process.
  2. Video Documentation: Record a video of the will execution where the testator can explicitly state and explain their estate decisions. This can be crucial evidence in disputing claims of undue influence or questioning the validity of the will.
  3. Litigation Holdback Fund: Instead of a complete forfeiture of inheritance, a portion of a beneficiary’s interest could be held in escrow during a contest. This approach reduces the financial risk for both the estate and the beneficiaries while discouraging frivolous claims.
  4. Transparent Communication: Regular updates and clear communication with all beneficiaries about the contents and reasoning behind the estate plan can preempt misunderstandings and disputes.

Read More: Why Holistic Estate Planning Includes Senior Living Affordability for Baby Boomers in Texas

Conclusion: Crafting a Resilient Estate Plan in Mineola

For residents of Mineola, Texas, crafting an estate plan that withstands potential challenges is about more than just distributing assets. It involves strategic planning, clear communication, and sometimes, the integration of mechanisms like no-contest or forfeiture clauses. By addressing common grounds for will contests in advance and utilizing preventative strategies, you can help ensure that your final wishes are honored and that your loved ones are protected from protracted legal battles. Book a consultation with our estate planning team to discuss how we can help craft a robust plan tailored to your specific circumstances.

Whether you suspect that an aspect of your deceased loved one’s estate has not been handled properly or you found yourself facing accusations of mishandling part of the estate, our probate litigator can assist you.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 1, 2023) “What Do No-Contest Clauses Have to Do With Undue Influence?

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