Occasionally, family members of a recently-deceased person in Berks County, Pennsylvania will attempt to claim that a will is invalid, normally because it leaves them out of it. This process is called a "Will contest."
Sometimes, when a person who expected to be included in a will is left out, their natural assumption is that there was some mistake, or that the will was made through improper means, such as duress or fraud, or that the will is an outright forgery.
If a massive amount of money or property is being given away, the person left out of the will could reasonably conclude that the cost and time of a court challenge is worth it.
Like any legal matter, however, this should not be taken lightly. Will contests can foster conflict and strife within families who are already mourning a loved one. This can cause severe and irreversible damage to family relationships.
When Can a Will be Contested in Berks County, Pennsylvania?
A court in Berks County, Pennsylvania will not entertain a will contest unless there is a very good reason to do so. However, there are some allegations which, if proven, clearly invalidate a will.
One big reason to invalidate a will is the fact that the will was made under duress. "Duress" simply means forcing somebody to do something they don't want to, using some kind of threat. Normally, the threat involves some type of physical harm. The most obvious example would involve putting a gun to somebody's head and telling them to write a will containing the terms desired by the gunman. Such a will, assuming the underlying facts can be proven in court, will never be valid. Of course, the validity of a will rarely becomes an issue until the testator has died, which may be years after the will was drafted. This means that proving the circumstances under which the will was made can often be very difficult. However, there are certain facts, such as the devise being to an "unnatural" beneficiary (somebody the testator didn't know very well, for instance), and the beneficiary being in a position of power over the decedent, are enough to at least create a suspicion that something is wrong.
Another reason why a will might be invalid is the maker of the will being mentally incompetent at the time the will was made. In order to make a valid will, the person making it must have enough of his or her mental faculties to understand what they're doing, and the consequences of it.
If the contest is successful, a court in Berks County, Pennsylvania might find the will or part of it invalid. Of course, that leaves the question of how to distribute the property in the absence of a valid will. All states have laws that address this situation, normally passing the property to the decedent's closest living kin. All states have laws governing the order in which property is passed on in this manner. Usually, it goes to the spouse first. If there is no living spouse, it goes to the children. If there are no children, it goes to the decedent's parents, and so on. Most laws on this subject are written in such a way that almost everyone will have at least one relative entitled to inherit, even if that person is very distantly related to the decedent. In the very rare case where no living relatives exist, or none can be found, the decedent's assets usually go to the state.
Can a Berks County, Pennsylvania Contested Will Attorney Help?
Contesting a will can be a perplexing, emotional, expensive, and time-consuming process. There is really no way around this. However, a brilliant Berks County, Pennsylvania wills and estates attorney can minimize these problems, and make the process as painless as possible.