Whether you’re an executor defending will contest claims, or an interested party wanting to retain a will dispute litigator to protect your inheritance, the go-to probate attorneys at Smith Law of Iowa want to help.
In this Q&A blog, you’ll learn about why will disputes happen and what you must consider before challenging a testamentary document in probate.
CAN I CONTEST A WILL?
Any interested party in Iowa may challenge a will, but they must hold legitimate grounds to do so. This means you must have evidence showing one of following incidents took place to support your allegations of wrongdoing:
- The testator improperly executed the will.
- The deceased lacked testamentary capacity to execute the will.
- Someone unduly influenced the testator into making or changing the will.
- Someone defrauded the testator into making or changing the will.
The courts will either set aside the entire will or strike it in parts if you prevail, but if you lack proof, your cause of action will fail.
WHO IS AN INTERESTED PARTY?
Iowa probate case law defines interested parties as any individual who holds a legitimate property right or a claim against an estate in probate proceedings.
WHAT’S THE DEADLINE TO FILE A WILL DISPUTE?
According to Iowa Code 633.309, you must register your first caveat (a petition to the court to set aside probate proceedings)—within four months after the executor publishes a second probate notice in the local newspaper; or within one month after you receive a probate notice in the mail.
The clock starts ticking as soon as the will enters probate, and the courts will bar you from challenging the will if you wait too long to file your complaint.
DO I HAVE TO PAY LEGAL FEES TO CONTEST A WILL?
The estate often carries the burden to pay your legal costs when asserting legitimate claims against a will in probate.
This however is not automatic. An executor may refuse to charge your legal fees to the estate. If so, your will contest attorney will have to petition the court to order restitution in payment of your legal expenses.
A probate judge may contrarily order you to pay the estate’s legal defense costs if your cause of action fails—always seek legal advice to find out who pays under your particular circumstances before filing a will challenge.
WHAT’S AN UNDUE INFLUENCE CAUSE OF ACTION?
If you have proof that someone persuaded, pressured or coerced the deceased into reducing or eliminating your inheritance, you may contest his testamentary document in probate based on undue influence.
The courts can invalidate provisions in a testamentary document if you can show the deceased always intended to convey assets to you upon death, but it didn’t happen because the terms and provisions of the will reflected someone else’s intent.
HOW DO INCAPACITY CHALLENGES WORK?
The courts may quash testamentary documents from probate if they find the deceased lacked the testamentary capacity, or rather, lacked the legal mental requisite to execute the will.
To support incapacity claims, you will need to establish from medical records and witness testimony that the deceased was not of sound mind during and shortly after he or she executed the will. You must also prove the testator always wanted to pass on property to you, but mental illness affected his or her ability to do so.
WHAT IF I WANT TO REMOVE AN EXECUTOR?
Executor or trustee removal can only happen if during performance the fiduciary breached a legal duty owed to you.
Fiduciary litigation facilitates executor removal proceedings, and the courts will remove and replace the executor only if you prove one of the following incidents occurred:
- A conflict of interest resides in probate proceedings.
- The fiduciary mismanaged the estate or executed it improperly.
- The executor breached a duty of loyalty to you.
You should know that court-ordered fiduciary discharges are uncommon, and probate judges hold complete discretion on the matter.
CAN I SETTLE MY WILL CHALLENGE OUT OF COURT?
Will dispute litigation can drag on for years and can cost the estate a lot of money. So it’s in the best interest of both sides to settle their probate dispute controversies as quickly as possible.
Settlement negotiations usually take place soon after discovery (fact-finding process), or the courts may order compulsory mediation to save on time and trial costs.
The well-practiced estate dispute attorneys at the Smith Law Firm recognize that most will contests in Iowa settle early in probate, an acceptance that every professional attorney should aim for to ward off excessive legal fees charged to the estate.
IS A “NO-CONTEST” CLAUSE VALID IN IOWA?
Some testamentary documents contain “no-contest” provisions that will eliminate your inheritance if you lose your challenge in court. The clause may further require you to reimburse legitimate beneficiaries and the estate for legal fees spent on defending the so-called frivolous lawsuit.
The Iowa Court of Appeals focused on the issue in Workman v. Workman (2017), holding no-contest clauses are enforceable but “no-contest provisions will not be enforced against one who contests the will in good faith and for probable cause.”
In Workman, one party challenged the will for lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence, and the estate countered by seeking to eliminate the plaintiff’s inheritance based on a “no-contest” provision in the will.
The plaintiff lost his case for lack of medical evidence, but the court found the caveator did not exercise “bad faith or unreasonable belief,” so the court did not forfeit his interests in the estate.
You should therefore be extremely careful and analyze the risks when challenging a no-contest will in Iowa because if the court finds you litigated in bad faith or without probable cause, you’ll most likely lose your inheritance.
CAN I CONTEST THE WILL AFTER PROCEEDINGS END?
Iowa courts rarely reopen and repeat probate proceedings once executors wind them down, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t sue someone from probate and attack the property they wrongfully seized from the estate.
Tortious interference with expected inheritance actions are not challenges against the estate—they are lawsuits that personally attack a wrongdoer’s property and his or her careless or intentional wrongful conduct long after probate closes and the estate’s assets have departed.
You must however have exhausted all attempts to remedy damages during probate proceedings before you can sue a wrongdoer for tortious interference of inheritance.