Interested parties bring will challenge lawsuits when they believe a wrongdoer took advantage of a loved one’s intent before death or when they think the testamentary document in probate is a forgery that does not represent the testator’s final wishes.
Disgruntled family members can also object when they find the decedent’s will excludes them from taking a fair share of the assets, and some relatives contest estate planning documents without cause just to get revenge on sibling rivals.
Regardless of whether or not a claim is legitimate, executors hold a fiduciary obligation to defend the testamentary documents in probate against any challenges brought by interested parties.
Personal representatives often receive estate dispute lawsuits after attempting to introduce the deceased’s will into probate or within a few months after probate proceedings begin.
How fiduciaries defend a will dispute depends on the circumstances of the contestant’s claim against the estate.
Let’s examine what will contest defenses are all about and discover what actions an executor must take when responding to complaints.
Estate Dispute Defense in a Nutshell
An interested person with legal standing can challenge a will’s validity within one month after personally receiving a probate notice or four months after discovering an open probate publication.
Personal representatives who receive timely challenges must diligently prepare arguments and find evidence to defend probate in one of three capacities:
- Defending Validity—showing the testamentary documents in controversy are legitimate and unrelated to lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraud or forgery
- Defending Provisions—proving the inheritances and disinheritances found in the will were the deceased’s intent.
- Defending Property—showing the assets and real property held in probate actually belonged to the decedent before he or she died.
Defense of Estates Missing Testamentary Documents
When individuals pass away without a will, his or her assets will move to the court and Iowa’s complicated Rules of Intestacy Succession will apply for distributing property among heirs and beneficiaries.
Surviving spouses are first in line to defend challenges that seek to exclude them from intestacy asset distribution, followed by the decedent’s children and other family members.
Interested parties and non-family beneficiaries may also defend challenges that deny them access to intestacy assets but only thirty days after the estate enters intestacy probate and after the decedent’s family heirs have made their claims.
Defending Fiduciary Removal vs. Will Dispute Defenses
As mentioned above, will contest defense means protecting the will itself, its provisions or its assets from estate dispute claims.
Defending executor removal action on the other hand involves refuting breach of fiduciary duty allegations that assert the executor:
- Failed to produce timely estate accountings.
- Lacks the competence to perform.
- Delayed estate property distribution.
- Did not keep the heirs and beneficiaries reasonably
- Wasted estate assets.
- Holds a conflict of interest with the estate.
- Stole estate assets.
The Three Most Common Estate Dispute Defenses
Over eighty percent of will challenge responses refute an interested party’s claim alleging the estate planning documents are invalid.
Let’s review the top three:
- Lack of Testamentary Capacity Defense—contentions indicating the testator was of sound mind when executing his will.
- Undue Influence Defense—arguments asserting no one coerced, pressured or persuaded the testator into modifying or changing his will.
- Confidential Relationship Defense—rebuttals claiming a person did not hold a dominating or controlling relationship over the testator (argued to prevent shifting the burden of proof onto the defendant)
Steps in Defending Probate Disputes
Now that we have a general understanding of what estate dispute lawsuits are, let’s examine how personal representatives defend them.
- Hire an estate dispute defense attorney. Executors facing estate dispute litigation must retain counsel to defend the lawsuit. The estate’s assets will accordingly pay the legal fees and expenses required to defend the case, meaning personal representatives should never have to pay out-of-pocket to hire a lawyer.
Once retained, the estate’s defense attorney will contact the lawyer who drafted and executed the testamentary document in controversy and notify counsel that a lawsuit is pending. This indirectly gives the estate planner notice that the defense will most likely call him or her to testify about the will’s validity—the defense may also ask the lawyer to serve as co-counsel as well.
- File a response. Iowa civil procedure requires executors to file a response to will challenge allegations within twenty days after receiving the lawsuit or face an adverse summary judgment against the estate.
- Locate witnesses. After filing a response, the estate will help their will contest defense attorney locate witnesses who possess knowledge about the testator’s mental competence during the time he drafted and executed his will.
The estate may likewise search for testimony from individuals who witnessed an influencer or fraudster use their dominant position over the testator to procure a personal benefit from the estate.
Starting with the witnesses present at the willing signing ceremony and continuing on to doctors, caregivers, family, friends, and neighbors, the more witness the estate’s defense can find to support its rebuttals, the stronger the chance a probate court will dismiss challenges against it.
- Gather evidence. The defense gathers evidence during will dispute litigation discovery, which takes place immediately after serving the challenger with the estate’s response to the lawsuit. Here, probate defense attorneys perform tasks like taking depositions from witnesses, subpoenaing medical and financial records and exchanging interrogatories with the will challenger.
- Perform informal estate accountings. Towards the end of discovery, executors often prepare informal accountings that summarize the estate’s assets, liabilities and beneficiaries, since the courts or attorneys for the challenger will most likely procure this information just before trial begins.
Length of Time to Defend Will Challenges
Estates facing probate litigation should expect to wait between one to two years after filing a response with the courts for a hearing; getting a trial date however may take longer if the will contest is large or complex. The courts will thereafter approve settlements among parties within nine to twelve months after the trial starts.
Probate Litigation Verdict Outcomes
If the defense fails to obtain a favorable judgment, the courts will either refer to an earlier testamentary document to determine how the estate will distribute assets or send the estate to intestacy probate where intestacy rules will decide who gets what—otherwise the existing probate will move forward if the estate can successfully get the will challenge dismissed.