Most New Jersey residents assume that once a will is signed, all the issues of distributing a person’s estate have been settled. Unfortunately, many beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries of a will may have different opinions about how the estate should be distributed.
Under New Jersey probate law, any beneficiary of a will or descendant or relative of the decedent have the right to contest the validity of a will by bringing a lawsuit in the county in which the decedent lived at the time of death.
Grounds for invalidating a will
The reasons why a will may be invalidated are few in number and difficult to prove.
All wills in New Jersey must be signed by the person making the will and by two witnesses. Any failure to comply with the formalities of will execution will result in the will being declared invalid.
Because most wills are drafted by experienced estate planning attorneys, very few wills fail to satisfy the formal statutory requirements. Anyone seeking to have a will declared invalid must prove that the will was the result of undue influence by one of the beneficiaries or that the person making the will lacked what is called “testamentary capacity.”
Lack of testamentary capacity
A valid and enforceable will must be made by a person who possessed sufficient mental capacity to understand the meaning and effect of a valid will. If the maker of the will lacked such capacity, the will is very likely to be invalidated in its entirety.
Proof of incapacity usually requires medical evidence of the testator’s state of mind and mental abilities prior to the date of death. Persons who knew the testator may also be called as witnesses to testify about the decedent’s mental capacity or lack thereof.
Some potential beneficiaries may believe that one or more persons exercised what is called “undue influence” over the testator. If these persons are proved to have had an unusually intimate relationship with the testator or was able to control the testator’s behavior, the testator is usually deemed to have lacked the free will and mental capacity that is essential to proving the validity of a will.
Undue influence is usually proved by the testimony of family members and friends who observed the testator in relationships with the persons accused of exercising undue influence.
Fraud or misrepresentation
The last reason for invalidating a will is proof that the testator was defrauded into making certain bequests. Fraud in this context consists of statements to the testator that misstate material facts or omit material facts upon which the testator might have relied.