What Estate Planners Need to Know About Will Dispute Litigation and Will Challenge Defenses

The last thing you want to happen after your death is for your heirs and beneficiaries to defend a lawsuit brought against your estate when your testamentary documents enter probate.

Expensive will dispute litigation should be avoided at all costs, since it can eliminate or drastically reduce your heirs’ inheritances or delay your estate’s dispersal. Will contests in Iowa have further been known to split families for generations.

Understanding how estate disputes arise and how will challenge defenses work before you draft your testamentary documents may reduce the possibility of your estate going through expensive and unnecessary litigation later.

Let’s examine some typical will contest lawsuits in Iowa and a few effective defenses that your loved ones may assert to fight off claims against their inheritances after you’ve passed away.

Estate Dispute Plaintiffs

Any interested party may dispute the validity of your will once it enters probate.

Plaintiffs however must hold standing before suing. To hold standing, a will challenger must either be:

  • a named beneficiary in your Will; or,
  • a person who would have inherited under Iowa’s intestate succession rules.

After the courts rule an interested party can sue, the person must prove that he/she holds a valid will dispute claim before the action can move forward.

Typical Will Contest Actions

A will dispute plaintiff may only sue your estate on two grounds—improper execution and/or a claim that alleges the provisions for asset distribution in your Will do not reflect your true intent.

Limiting the grounds to sue also prevents individuals who are merely “unhappy” with their inheritances from bringing costly litigation after your death in retaliation.

The following bullet points summarize common will challenges that interested parties bring during probate proceedings:

  • IMPROPER EXECUTION. Proper execution of your Will in Iowa requires you to sign your testamentary documents “in the direct presence” of two unrelated witnesses who also endorse your Will. You must further draft your testamentary documents according to the law and any codicils added later must clearly express your intent to modify a previously executed Will. Deviations from these strict rules will most likely provoke expensive improper execution litigation against your estate when it enters probate.
  • TESTAMENTARY CAPACITY. These disputes argue that you didn’t understand what you were doing when you executed or modified your Will. Before drafting an estate plan or codicil, Iowa Probate Code states that you must hold the requisite legal capacity to understand the nature of your assets and to recognize the heirs who will eventually take from your estate.
  • UNDUE INFLUENCE. Undue influence lawsuits arise when an interested party holds proof or believes that another person pressured you into drafting or changing your Will. Accused influencers can be a colleague, financial advisor, relative or caregiver who allegedly took advantage of your vulnerability when coercing, pressuring or forcing you to bequeath estate assets to them.
  • FRAUD. Probate fraud litigation addresses forged signatures on Wills or acts where a fraudster deceived or misled you into executing a counterfeit testamentary document.
  • ELECTIVE SHARE. Iowa probate code allows your surviving spouse to receive an elective share of your estate in lieu of what you provide for him/her in your Will. Elective share lawsuits argue the state’s Statute of Limitations bars your spouse from taking a statutory allowance of your assets.
  • EXECUTOR REMOVAL or BREACH OF FIDUCIARY DUTY. Your personal representative will pay your debts and distribute any remaining estate assets to your heirs after your death. The law accordingly imposes high legal duties on such fiduciary positions—executors must manage your estate with care and diligence and always place your beneficiaries’ best interests above their own. Executor removal action commences after fiduciaries breach the legal duties owed to your heirs.

Defending Your Testamentary Documents

Remember, estate dispute plaintiffs may only claim either your Will is invalid or your testamentary documents do not express your original intent. Regardless of the interested party’s argument, the will challenger would have to acquire enough physical and circumstantial evidence to prove his/her claim—a heavy burden to bear.

Iowa courts further disfavor invalidating properly executed Wills, rulings that interfere with a testator’s last wishes. However, cases exist where will challenge plaintiffs have successfully shifted the burden of proof over to the estate executor to show the testamentary documents in controversy are legitimate.

Will Challenge Defendants

Your estate executor would be the person responsible for defending legal challenges that arise during probate proceedings, since the law compels him/her to protect your last wishes and to secure the interests of the beneficiaries named in your Will.

After a will challenger serves your estate with a copy of his/her complaint, your personal representative would retain a probate defense attorney to squash the plaintiff’s lawsuit. It thereafter becomes the defense attorney’s job to move the executor’s objections forward—i.e. file a response with the court, begin discovery, enter settlement negotiations, and prepare the estate’s defense arguments and evidence for trial if necessary.

Will Contest Defense Evidence

The executor’s will contest defense attorney must produce evidence that supports the estate’s counterarguments asserted in court.

During undue influence and testamentary capacity litigation, a judge may presume your Will does not reflect your true intent if the will challenger successfully proves that you were in a confidential relationship with another person prior to your death.

Your estate would then bear the burden of proving to the court that your testamentary documents are valid via presentation of direct and indirect evidence:

  • Witnesses (doctors, caretakers, relatives) who can testify you were mentally competent at the time you drafted or changed your estate plan.
  • Cognitive tests your estate planning attorney administered to you before you executed your testamentary documents.
  • Medical records that show you were of sound mind when you planned your estate.

Contrarily, the plaintiff must prove your Will is invalid when he/she asserts an improper execution claim against your estate.

Your estate’s defense attorney can retort the will challenger’s arguments produced in court by submitting opposing evidence that demonstrates your testamentary documents are absolutely valid:

  • Pre-draft, handwritten notes or observations from your estate planning attorney that expose your resolve to create or modify your Will.
  • Testimony from the witnesses who were present at the Will signing ceremony.
  • Video evidence taken during your pre-drafting meetings with your estate attorney.

Last Thoughts…

It’s important to know that will dispute litigation differs from an executor removal action. Interested parties are the plaintiffs in a will challenge lawsuit and your designated heir and beneficiaries would be the defendants.

Your loved ones would contrarily become the plaintiffs in a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit brought during probate. Here, your heirs and beneficiaries would petition an equity court to remove and replace the current executor because of performance issues (i.e. incompetence, fiduciary duty negligence, fraud or embezzlement).

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