Most sibling estate fights that I litigate involve a will.
The fight may be a will challenge disputing the validity of the will based on:
• Lack of testamentary capacity on the part of the testator ( the person making the will)
• The testator’s lack of knowledge or approval of the contents of the will
• Undue influence exerted by someone trying to benefit under the will
• Suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of the will
• Improper execution of the will
Sometimes, the dispute is not about the validity of the will but rather involves questions arising out of the interpretation of the will. If the parties cannot agree, lengthy and expensive court proceedings are necessary to obtain a judge’s opinion as to what the testator intended.
The best way to avoid an estate fight over a will is to have a lawyer who is skilled and experienced in drafting wills prepare the document. A good estates lawyer will spend the necessary time with the client and make copious notes as evidence of the client’s wishes and capacity and reasons for making specific bequests. If the will is challenged, the lawyer’s notes are available as evidence of the testator’s intentions and capacity. These notes and the evidence of the drafting lawyer can be very helpful in defending against a will challenge.
Unfortunately, many clients do not appreciate the time and effort that is involved in drafting a proper will. They view wills as a commodity and shop around for the cheapest price. This is a mistake. A will is probably the most important legal document you will ever sign.
What should a proper will cost? It depends on the size and complexity of the estate but a recent excellent article by John Poyser suggests that $ 1200.00 is not unreasonable for a proper job to be done. Alas, many clients do not see the value or appreciate the work involved and they retain lawyers who are prepared to treat wills as “loss leaders” or worse, the clients go and purchase a will kit for $ 29.95. These individuals may do such a poor job that they end up causing the estates thousands of dollars in estate disputes.
Mr. Poyser writes:
“ Tax and probate rules have become more complicated. Disputes over estates burn money that would otherwise go to the family. Courts have been very clear over the past decade or two: Lawyers are responsible for avoiding those disputes by being very, very careful when doing wills. Even in a simple situation, a lawyer should spend a minimum of an hour or two face to face with the client.”
So, if you want to avoid an expensive sibling fight over an estate, do your research and retain a lawyer with expertise in drafting wills and be prepared to pay for a proper will.