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How hard is it to challenge a will in Minnesota? It depends on the circumstances, but in general, contesting a will is not easy. That’s good news for those who want their last wishes honored; not so good for those who feel they have been treated unfairly in someone else’s will.
Imagine a successful will contest as a series of gates through which you must pass. If for some reason you cannot pass through even one, your challenge will fail.
“Standing” is a legal term that refers to whether a person has the right to bring a particular legal action in court. If you do not have standing to challenge a will, your case will be dismissed. Who has standing to contest a will? Not that many people.
As a general rule, people with standing to contest a will are close relatives of the person who died. To have standing in Minnesota, you must either be named in the will or a previous version of the will, or you would stand to inherit from the deceased by law if no will existed.
If you can answer the question of whether you have standing with a “yes,” you have passed through the first gate.
In Minnesota, individuals with standing who wish to contest a will must do so within one year after the death of the deceased person. Otherwise, the claim is barred and subject to automatic dismissal by the court. This limit on time to file a claim is called a statute of limitations. It may seem unfair from the standpoint of someone seeking to contest a will, but it makes sense; the purpose of probate is to settle the estate of a deceased person. If a will contest were permitted for an extended period after the death, the estate could not be settled with certainty. Heirs and beneficiaries who inherited from the deceased could not be assured that their right to the property was secure.
If you have standing to contest a will, and it is less than one year after the death of the person who made that will, you have passed through the second gate.
“Grounds” is another legal term that simply means a basis on which an action can be taken. This is the “gate” that prevents most people from successfully challenging a will in Minnesota. Many people who seek to challenge a will want to do so because they think the will is unfair. The will in question might be grossly unfair, but that, on its own, is not sufficient grounds to challenge the will.
In Minnesota, there are only a few grounds upon which a will contest can be based. One is “lack of testamentary capacity.” In order to make a valid will, a person must be of sound mind, knowing who they are, what they have, and the people to whom they would ordinarily leave their assets. If a person does not understand what they are doing when making a will, the will is not valid and can be challenged.
Another ground for contesting a will in Minnesota is failure to comply with the formal requirements for making a will. In other words, there are technical deficiencies that prevent the will from being valid. Some of the most common examples include the failure of the person making the will to sign the will, or to have witnesses attest in writing to the validity of the signature.
A will may also be contested due to “undue influence.” This term is commonly misunderstood. Undue influence is more than just flattering or currying favor with the person making the will (the testator). Under Minnesota law, undue influence is defined as “influence of such a degree exerted upon the testator by another that it destroys or overcomes the testator's free agency and substitutes the will of the person exercising the influence for that of the testator.” In will contest cases alleging undue influence, the testator is often frail or dependent in some way on the alleged influencer, making them especially vulnerable and susceptible to financial exploitation.
Fraud is another ground on which to base a will contest. “Fraud in the inducement” means a deception that persuades the testator to make or change a will, such as causing them to believe that one of their intended beneficiaries is scheming against them. “Fraud in the execution” is a deception about the nature of what the testator is signing, such as causing the testator to believe they are signing a will that benefits their children equally, when in fact the document disinherits one child.
It is one thing to believe that you have grounds for a will contest. It is another altogether to be able to be able to prove those grounds. An experienced Minnesota probate attorney can advise you as to the likelihood of prevailing in a will contest, how to gather the evidence you need, and other things you should think about.
There are risks involved with contesting a will. Some wills contain a “no contest” or “in terrorem” clause to try to discourage challenges to the will. If you unsuccessfully attempt to challenge the will with a no-contest clause, you could lose whatever share of the inheritance you were entitled to.
Even if a will contest is successful, it is worth considering what the interpersonal cost could be. Contesting a will often cause rifts in a family, forcing people to take sides behind opposing parties. However, if relationships are already severely strained, or the amount of the lost inheritance is significant, you may decide the risk is worth it. If you have questions about whether you should contest a will in Minnesota, we invite you to contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation.