The basic legal concepts in a California will contest

California statute provides for a legal action contesting the validity of a will.

One of the most difficult family situations is the disagreement over whether a will of a deceased loved one is valid. Such an issue can have significant economic consequences when the distribution of the decedent's money or property, including who gets it and the size and value of bequests, depends on the validity or invalidity of the instrument. In such circumstances, California law allows a will contest in state court to challenge the will's validity.

The party or parties seeking to have a California court find a will valid are called the proponents by state statute. The party or parties challenging the will's legitimacy are the contestants, who to have standing to contest the will must be interested persons whose property interests would be affected if the will were to be probated (its instructions carried out by court order).

In a will contest trial, which in California is decided by a judge without a jury, the proponents must prove that the will was duly executed according to required formalities, meaning drafted, witnessed and signed according to the requirements of the law. To succeed in their challenge, the contestants must show that any of these grounds existed that would invalidate the will:

  • The testator lacked testamentary intent (words in will did not direct property disposition after death) or capacity (at the time of execution, the testator was not an adult or did not have the mental capacity to understand his or her property, what the bequest meant or the identity of his or her family members impacted by the will).
  • The testator was unduly influenced by another person (that person overcame the free will of the testator who would have otherwise made a different property disposition).
  • The will was based on fraud (assertion of an untruth by another person who knew the asserted facts were not true).
  • The testator executed the will under duress or in reaction to menace.
  • The testator executed the will mistakenly believing something vital to the bequest to have been true.
  • A later will revoked the will in question (the court must also determine whether the revoking will is entitled to be probated).

Whether you are someone considering contesting a will or someone defending against such a contest, it is important to seek legal counsel as early as possible to understand your legal options. Will contests can be expensive and a contestant must carefully consider whether the cost of trial (including whether legal fees or litigation costs may ultimately be recovered in some way) is justified considering the value of property devised by the will.

A will contest can also put great strain on family relationships, depending on the circumstances, which is another factor in the decision whether to seek or defend against a will contest. For financial or emotional reasons, the parties to a will contest may reach an out-of-court settlement. An experienced probate lawyer can negotiate on behalf of his or her client toward the possibility of such a settlement.

With four offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, lawyer and certified public accountant Connie Yi of the Law Offices of Connie Yi, PC, represents both will proponents and contestants in will contests as well as clients in other estate planning and probate matters.