Helping Those With Standing Challenge the Validity of a Will
A court that finds adequate legal grounds can invalidate any provisions of a will—or the entire will—to prevent unjust results. But only someone with a legal basis for a claim can bring such a petition. This is known as standing. If you believe that a friend or loved one has executed an invalid will, consult the experienced Pomona estate attorneys at Hackard Law. Their experience helps protect Californians from invalid wills that impair their lawful property rights.
What Is Standing, and Who Has it?
Standing is a legal term that refers to a person’s ability to bring a lawsuit. A person must have a financial stake in a claim to bring a probate claim to court. This prevents the court systems from slowing down from resolving claims brought by people with no legal right to them. Lack of standing allows the dismissal of a claim before litigation.
In a case that challenges the validity of a will, anyone who is named in the will might establish standing. People who can prove that the will would have named them but for its invalidity may also establish standing.
California law recognizes many different reasons to invalidate a will. Section 8252 of the Probate Code specifies that a contestant has the burden of proving invalidity for one of the following reasons:
- The person making the will (the testator) had a lack of testamentary intent. This means that the testator did not intend to make a will or distribute assets upon the testator’s death.
- The testator did not possess testamentary capacity. This means the testator lacked the mental ability to make a will or understand the effect that the will would have.
- The will resulted from undue influence exerted over a testator by a third party.
- The will resulted from fraud or mistake.
- The will resulted from duress. This means that the will was only created because of the illegal exercise of power over the testator (such as physical threats or intimidation).
- A codicil (amendment) or another will revoked the will or some of its provisions.
Why Standing Is Not Always Obvious
A potential heir can find standing difficult to prove. Even when someone can prove grounds to invalidate the will (such as fraud, duress, or coercion), the contestant must also prove a financial stake in the proceeding.
Rarely are cases straightforward. For example, if a codicil specifically disinherits one child who can prove that the codicil resulted from undue influence exerted by another child, then the disinherited child has a financial interest in invalidating the codicil.
Unfortunately, few probate cases are so clear-cut.
In 1989, the California Court of Appeals considered one such complicated situation presented in Estate of Lind (209 Cal. App. 3d 1425). The probate court had dismissed a petition of Ms. Lind’s adopted brother to challenge her will. He claimed the will was produced through undue influence exerted by Ms. Lind’s attorney over the elderly, ailing woman. Unfortunately, Ms. Lind’s parents had never formalized the man’s adoption. He was not, therefore, a legal sibling with standing to challenge the will.
He sought to prove to the probate court that he did have standing under case law that allowed him to prove that the family would have adopted him but for a legal barrier. The probate court denied this request and dismissed his petition to contest the will.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals determined that the man had sufficient evidence to merit a hearing on the matter. This included evidence of adoption papers that were drafted, an attempt to legally change the man’s name to that of his adopted family, and that the family had taken him in as a child and always treated him as an adopted child.
The Court of Appeals reversed the probate court’s dismissal and ordered it to hold a hearing and take evidence of the man’s adoption.
The Court of Appeals also raised another interesting issue of standing in its opinion in this case. It held that, regardless of whether the adopted brother was ultimately found to have standing to challenge Ms. Lind’s will, the attorney’s undue influence was still an issue for the probate court to determine. The Court of Appeals held that undue influence is presumed when an attorney drafts a will from which the attorney benefits, and that the probate court could raise this presumption of its own accord—without any motion from a contestant.
An Attorney Can Help Heirs Establish Standing
The Lind case shows the importance of hiring an experienced probate litigator to establish standing. Without sound legal advice, the man might have assumed that he had no legal standing simply because the family never finalized his adoption. Not only did his attorney find a provision that contestants could use to prove that legal barriers prevented their formal adoptions, but his attorney produced compelling evidence that this was, in fact, the case.
Different provisions may apply to other contestants’ challenges. It takes the experience of a seasoned probate litigator to know how best to advance a claim of standing.
Experienced Probate Litigators for Effective Legal Challenges
The experienced Pomona estate attorneys at Hackard Law may help you identify all potential legal grounds for challenging a will, effectively litigate these challenges, and defend against any arguments to your legal challenge. We focus on probate litigation, and have the experience necessary to achieve results. Call us at (916) 313-3030 or (213) 357-5200, or write us online today to schedule your free consultation with one of our probate litigators.