A primary purpose of estate planning is to ensure that your wealth is distributed according to your wishes after you die. But if a family member challenges the plan, that purpose may be defeated. If the challenge is successful, a judge will decide who’ll inherit your property.
Will contests and similar challenges often occur when one’s estate plan operates in an unexpected way. For example, if you favor one child over the others or leave a substantial inheritance to a nonfamily member, those who expected to inherit that wealth may challenge your plan, often on grounds of undue influence. There are steps you can take, however, to reduce the risks of these challenges.
Not all influence is undue
It’s important to recognize that a certain level of influence is permissible, so long as it doesn’t rise to the level of “undue” influence. For example, there’s generally nothing wrong with a daughter who encourages her father to leave her the family vacation home. But if the father is in a vulnerable position — perhaps he’s ill or frail and the daughter is his caregiver — a court might find that he’s susceptible to undue influence and that the daughter improperly influenced him to change his will.
Protecting your plan
Here are steps you can take to reduce the chances of undue influence claims and increase the odds your wishes are carried out:
Use a revocable trust. Rather than relying on a will alone, create a revocable, or “living,” trust. These trusts don’t go through probate, so they’re more difficult and costly to challenge.
Establish competency. Claims of undue influence often go hand in hand with challenges on grounds of lack of testamentary capacity. With your attorney, establish that you were “of sound mind and body” at the time you sign your will. It can go a long way toward combating an undue influence claim.
Avoid the appearance of undue influence. If you reward someone who’s in a position to influence you, take steps to avoid the appearance of undue influence. For example, prepare your will independently — that is, under conditions that are free from interference by family members or other beneficiaries.
To deter challenges to your plan, consider including a no-contest clause, which provides that, if a beneficiary challenges your will or trust unsuccessfully, he or she will receive nothing. Keep in mind, however, that you may want to leave something to people who are likely to challenge your plan; otherwise, they have nothing to lose by contesting it.
If your estate plan leaves any family members less of an inheritance than they expect, there’s a risk they’ll contest it. Although there’s no guaranteed way to protect your plan, these strategies can minimize the chances that a disgruntled beneficiary will challenge your plan in court. Your attorney can address any concerns you have about your family possibly challenging your estate plan.