You often read news stories (or see fictional dramas) where aggravated family members “contest” the will of a relative. But can anyone contest a will? In California the established law is that a person cannot contest a will unless he or she is an “interested person” in the estate of the deceased.
So what constitutes an interested person?
Interested persons include those named as beneficiaries under the will and those who would stand to inherit if there is no will (or the purported will is declared invalid). Members of the former group are legatees while the latter are heirs. Since a valid will normally controls the distribution of a deceased person’s property, heirs may be excluded from inheriting altogether. Conversely, if a will is successfully contested and declared invalid, any legatees (who are not also heirs) may lose their claim to an estate.
A Contestant Must Show How She Will Gain
Even if a person is both a legatee and an heir, the will may alter his or her share of an estate relative to what is provided for under intestacy law–that is, California law dictating how property must be distributed if the deceased did not leave a valid will. A case recently decided by the California Court of Appeals helps explain this concept. While this case cannot be relied on as a statement of the law, it can be used to illustrate the concept. The case involved a contest to the will of Daisy Gregory, who died in 2008. Gregory was a widow with no children. Her will, signed in 2001, divided her estate among various persons, including an 8% share to Beverly Seghezzi, the niece of Gregory’s late husband.
Seghezzi contested the will. She claimed Gregory had made known her intent to revoke the 2001 will. The probate court dismissed Seghezzi’s contest on the grounds that even if the will were declared invalid, Seghezzi would inherit nothing, because she was not an heir under California law. Seghezzi was related to Gregory’s husband, not Gregory.
But the court of appeals noted that the California Probate Code contains a provision that may give Seghezzi standing after all. Section 6402.5 says that if a person dies without a valid will and has no children but a predeceased spouse, the spouse’s heirs may inherit part of the estate. Seghezzi did not raise this claim with probate court initially, but the court of appeals said she could amend her contest and, in effect, take a second bite at the apple.
That still doesn’t mean she has standing to contest the will. The court of appeals said the burden is on her, when appearing again before the probate court, to show that she would gain more from the estate if the will was declared invalid than if it was admitted. In other words, under the will she’ll receive 8% of the estate; she must prove there’s some other possible outcome that would result in her receiving more than 8%.
Avoiding a Similar Situation
It may not always be possible to prevent a disgruntled relative from contesting your will after your death. But to minimize the risk of a legitimate contest–and lengthy court proceedings that can deplete your estate’s assets–you should make sure your will is regularly reviewed by an experienced California estate planning attorney. Contact the Law Office of Scott Soady if you would like to discuss your estate planning needs.