Contesting a will in New Jersey based on undue influence

Sometimes suspicious circumstances in the execution of a will give rise to claims of improper control and influence over the testator.

When someone writes and executes a will to direct who will inherit his or her property at death, it is seen as a smart thing to do to protect the person's assets by seeing that they go to the desired family members, friends or charities. When the person is independent and clear headed, and other legal requirements of creating a valid will are met, an enforceable will is created.

But sometimes the circumstances are otherwise and the person may be inappropriately influenced, coerced, pressured or dominated by another to execute a will that disposes of assets in a questionable way, usually to the benefit of the dominating individual. In New Jersey and other states, a will created while the testator was unduly influenced can be contested in court as invalid.

People can find themselves on both sides of a will contest. Sometimes, a person suspects or has evidence that a loved one acted under undue influence of another in writing a will that leaves property to an unexpected beneficiary or in suspicious proportions. On the other hand, sometimes a family member or will beneficiary finds him or herself defending the will of a loved one in court against accusations of undue influence.

In either situation, it is important to seek legal counsel who can either contest a will by alleging undue influence in court, or provide vigorous defense against such an assertion. An experienced probate attorney will know the complicated and precise New Jersey law, largely court made, governing undue influence in the will contest arena.

New Jersey courts have a rich jurisprudence that elaborates on and clarifies undue influence in the will context. In a will contest, the court will normally presume that the testator was competent when he or she executed the will and the person contesting the will must prove that undue influence was present when the will was executed.

However, if two conditions are established by the challenger, the court will instead presume that undue influence did exist, which the person defending the will must then overcome. The two conditions are:

  • The will as written benefits someone in a confidential relationship with the testator, meaning that the parties did not have an equal relationship because the beneficiary dominated or controlled the testator, who may have been dependent on the beneficiary.
  • Suspicious circumstances were present, even only slightly suspicious. An example might be a sudden change of disposition to benefit someone unexpected or in contrast to previous intentions.

A will contest can be legally and procedurally complicated, and each situation unique, so the representation of a skilled lawyer can be very important for those on either side of the conflict.

From their office in Springfield, New Jersey, the attorneys at Levine Desantis, LLC, represent clients in will contests and many other kinds of estate planning and probate matters in Central and Northern New Jersey.