A will is a legal document designed to memorialize the wishes of the testator and ensure that their wishes are fulfilled. Once the testator passes away, their estate must be settled and assets distributed. First, the will must be proved as the court will not probate an invalid will. A will contest is a legal objection to probating a will. Before the court will proceed with probate, it must listen to any written objections and make a determination.
Procedure for Contesting a Will
In order to initiate a will contest in Rhode Island, the objectant must have legal standing. In other words, the person must have an immediate financial interest in the proceeding. Typically those who have standing only include beneficiaries of the will at issue, beneficiaries of a prior or later will, and intestate heirs.
To initiate the will contest the objectant must submit their objection in writing to the same Probate Court where the will was submitted. The filing must state the reason for the contest. Valid reasons for a will contest include:
- Lack of testamentary capacity. Rhode Island law requires that a testator must be at least 18 years old and must be of “sane mind” at the time they executed the will. If there is evidence that they were mentally incompetent, the will would be invalid. RI Gen L § 33-5-2
- Undue influence. Undue influence occurs when someone uses their relationship of trust with the testator to illegally manipulate the testator in order to obtain bequests under the will. The court defined undue influence as, “the substitution of the will of a third party for the free will and choice of the testatrix in making a testamentary disposition.” Caranci v. Howard, 708 A2d 1321 (RI 1998). A will created based on undue influence is invalid.
- Unlawful execution. A will can be contested on the grounds that it was not properly drafted and executed in accordance with the requirements of Rhode Island law. A will must be in writing and signed by the testator or at the direction of the testator. In addition, the signing of the will must be witnessed by at least 2 people who also sign it. RI Gen L § 33-5-5
- Duress or coercion. A testator makes a will under duress if a threat caused the testator to make a will favoring the person who made the threats that they would otherwise not make.
Consequences of a Will Contest
If the objectant loses, the Probate Court will move forward and admit the will to probate. probate the will. If the Probate Court finds that the will is invalid, unless there is a prior or later valid will, the decedent would be intestate. As a result, the decedent’s property will be distributed to the decedent’s legal heirs based on Rhode Island’s law of intestate succession.
If the decedent was survived by a spouse, but did not have any descendants, the surviving spouse would inherit up to $75,000 worth of the decedent’s probate real estate and will receive a life estate in the remaining probate real estate. The balance will be distributed equally to the decedent’s parents. If both parents are deceased, the balance would go to the decedent’s siblings.
In the decedent is survived by a spouse and children, the surviving spouse will receive a life estate in the decedent’s probate real estate and will also receive 50% of the decedent’s remaining probate estate. The decedent’s children will inherit the remaining probate estate.
If the decedent was survived by children, but no spouse, the children would share equally in the estate. In the absence of children or a surviving spouse, the decedent’s parents would be entitled to inherit the entire estate. Next in line would be the decedent’s siblings. The statute provides details as to who would be entitled to inherit based on which relatives survive the decedent.