A Guide to Understanding Will Challenges and Defending Inheritances

Without a doubt, dealing with Will dispute litigation during probate proceedings is disappointing and frustrating. Will contests are financially and emotionally costly for both proponents and individuals who wish to win back a hijacked inheritance. Therefore, one must consider the pros and cons before deciding to bring Will dispute action or defend a Will in probate court.

Can I Contest a Will?

According to Iowa Probate Code, only “interested persons” may challenge a Will admitted into probate, and challenges must hold legal grounds.

The Code identifies interested persons as heirs (family members), beneficiaries, creditors, and third parties with valid claims against the probated estate.

Legal grounds to contest a Will include:

Do I Hold Standing to Contest a Will?

An interested party must hold standing to assert allegations against a Will admitted into probate. A party holds “legal standing” to sue for inheritance in Iowa when the person is a named beneficiary in the Will or not named but would have inherited under the Will if it were valid or if the decedent had died without a Will (intestate).

Standing is the first procedural requirement to overcome in Will dispute litigation. 

Did the Deceased Possess Testamentary Capacity?

The Iowa courts will presume the deceased properly executed the Will unless an interested party can prove otherwise. Simply put, before hearing arguments in Will dispute litigation, the probate courts assume that the testator/testatrix:

  • Held the mental ability to draft or modify the Will. 
  • Had sufficient intelligent knowledge regarding the natural objects of his/her bounty (recognized all the estate heirs).
  • Knew the estate assets he/she held.
  • And, understood how to bequeath the estate among heirs.

The courts would hold this assumption even if the testator/testatrix were sick, disabled, or in the care of another before passing away. However, the courts have consistently ruled that contestants can admit evidence showing a decedent was mentally unstable “for a reasonable period before and after the making of a Will” when asserting incapacity claims.

Did Someone Unduly Influence the Deceased?

Favorable undue influence claims stem from the successful shifting of the burden of proof.

Once proponents show that the decedent held testamentary capacity and properly executed the estate planning documents in contention, the courts will presume that no person unduly influenced the decedent into drafting or modifying the Will.

Contestants then will bear the burden of showing undue influence or fraud existed before their dispute claims can move forward. To establish a prima facie case of undue influence, contestants must show through clear and convincing evidence that:

  • The deceased was in a “confidential relationship” with another person during the execution of the Will in contention.
  • Around the time of execution, another person applied his/her apparent authority over the deceased with the intent to seek an improper favor from the estate.  
  • The influencer received a substantial benefit from the estate.

Proof of a confidential relationship and the elements of undue influence would effectively shift the burden back to the proponent to prove the Will was valid (or show affirmatively undue influence was absent)—a heavy burden to overcome.  

Was Someone in a “Confidential Relationship” with the Deceased?

Probate courts in Iowa often find this question problematic to resolve. Whether the deceased was in a “confidential relationship” with another, under probate code, depends on the case’s specific facts. Relatives or caregivers often form confidential relationships with testators and testatrixes. 

Fiduciaries (people responsible for the deceased’s finances) such as lawyers, accountants, or anyone who had exclusive access to the decedent may have also formed a confidential relationship. The issue here is whether the influencer’s restricted access prevented others from contacting the decedent.

Did an outsider receive a “substantial benefit” under the Will?

To determine whether a proponent received a substantial benefit from the Will, the courts must examine the facts and circumstances of each case. It must also scrutinize prior Wills executed by the deceased and compare the terms to the contested document to discover whether the decedent actually intended to disinherit heirs.  

Does Will Dispute Litigation Have Consequences?

The most apparent drawback when contesting a Will relates to the cost of bringing legal action to the court. Most people in Iowa hire seasoned probate dispute attorneys to handle their cases. Depending on the size of the potential inheritance and case complexity, bringing legal action may not be cost-effective for everyone. However, if the estate holds many valuable assets, probate litigation may be well worth the time and money.

Only a professional Will and Trust dispute litigator can advise you on whether a Will contest is worth pursuing.

How Do I Defend a Contested Will?

An unfortunate event sometimes occurs during probate proceedings when proponents learn they must defend their inheritances. Usually, when executors submit Wills into probate, the courts accept them without a challenge—but what happens when a party challenges the deceased’s estate planning documents?

Executors often learn about Will contests after receiving a verified complaint and summons from interested parties with allegations claiming the decedent’s Will is invalid. When this happens, the executor holds a legal duty to the heirs to defend their inheritances zealously. 

Who Can Defend a Will?

Only the executor or person appointed by the court as the deceased’s personal administrator may defend the validity of a Will.

What Are Grounds to Defend a Will?

Proponents may defend a testator’s/testatrix’s estate planning documents under three grounds:  

  • Claim the Will is valid (i.e., contend the deceased held testamentary capacity, the Will was not a forgery, the deceased was not unduly influenced, or the deceased was not defrauded).
  • Assert that the terms in the estate planning documents are valid (i.e., show the testator intended to disinherit heirs). 
  • Contend the executor is appropriately executing the estate (defend against executor removal proceedings).

Do I Need to Hire A Will Contest Defense Attorney?

To satisfy ethical obligations owed to heirs, executors must retain qualified probate defense litigators to defend contested Wills. However, the courts may allow an executor to defend the estate if he/she is a licensed attorney specializing in Will dispute litigation in Iowa.

Is Testimony from the Decedent’s Estate Planning Attorney Important?

YES, absolutely! Probate courts in Iowa afford extensive consideration to evidence produced by the attorney who drafted the deceased’s Will. This person is an essential “fact witness” who often holds proof vital to the defense’s conterclaims. Evidence may include results from competency exams taken during estate planning, legal notes, and witness testimony proving the testator properly executed the Will.

The courts sometimes, however, will give lesser weight to the drafter’s evidence. The Court of Appeals of Iowa recently allowed a lower court to consider lay witnesses’ testimony over testimony from the deceased’s attorney. In Kline v. Culp, contesters proved that the testator’s influencer hired the estate planning attorney and that the influencer attended drafting consultations with the Testator.

The Court claimed that although the attorney’s observations of the testator’s mental capacity were significant, the estate planner was unaware of the decedent’s “actual weakened intellect,” which caused him to execute a Will under the undue influence of another. 

The Appellate Court thus placed greater weight on the testimony from contestant’s witnesses, individuals who knew the testator far longer than the estate planning attorney.

How Much Does It Cost to Defend a Will?

Every case is different. Several factors affect the cost of defending a contested Will, including:

  • The size and value of the estate.
  • Whether the contestant’s allegations are valid.
  • Overcoming heavy burden of proof shifts (see above). 
  • The time the probate defense attorney spends litigating the matter.
  • Expert witnesses fees and expenses

Who Pays for the Defense Attorney and How Long Does it Take to Resolve the Matter?

The courts will deduct the fees and expenses for defending a Will from the estate’s property and assets. This rule spares the heirs from paying out of pocket for professional legal defense services. 

Depending upon the case’s complexity, most Will contests are resolved within 9 to 12 months when settled out of court and within 1 to 2 years (or more) when requiring a court judgment.

In Conclusion … 

Will dispute litigation and probate defense cases are very fact-specific and take time to resolve. Both proponents and contesters must follow complicated probate procedural rules and substantive law when bringing Will contest action to the Iowa District Courts. 

Because this area of law is challenging, interested parties should refrain from taking legal action on their own (pro se) when contesting or defending estate planning documents in court.

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