In Washington, the first step in the estate administration process is for the will to be filed with the clerk of the probate court along with a Petition for Probate of Will. Wash. Rev. Code § 11.20.020. In Washington, probate court is part of the Superior Court system. When a probate case is initiated by the filing of the petition, those who have an interest in the estate are notified, including beneficiaries, heirs, and creditors. The court must accept or reject the will. If the court deems the will valid, it will admit the will to probate and the administration process will begin. A will contest is a type of probate dispute where an objectant formally challenges the validity of a will that has been admitted to probate. The goal of a will contest is to prevent the will from being probated.
Who Can Contest a Will in Washington
Under Washington law a will cannot be contested by anyone who chooses to. To object to a will, the objectant must be an interested party. This means that the challenger must have an immediate and direct financial interest in the matter. Becker v. White, 177 Wash. 2d 242 (Wash. 2013). Those who have standing to contest a will include beneficiaries named in the will, beneficiaries of a prior will, and intestate heirs. For example, upon learning of the contents of a decedent’s will, based on what she personally observed, a family friend had a strong feeling that the will was not legitimate. Unless that friend was a beneficiary in the will or a prior will, they would not be permitted to proceed with a will contest.
Procedure for Contesting a Will in Washington
Once a will is accepted by the court judge, an interested party has 4 months to ask the court to rescind probate. Wash. Rev. Code § 11.24.010. A trial will take place. Because there is a statutory assumption that a will that was accepted for probate is valid, the burden is on the objectant to prove its invalidity. Wash. Rev. Code § 11.24.030
Grounds for Contesting a Will in Washington
In addition to having standing, to contest a will the objectant must have legal grounds. Sometimes upon hearing the contents of a will a family member may be surprised or angry that they did not receive what they expected. While the person may feel that the will must be fraudulent, a feeling must be supported by a legally sufficient basis that the will is invalid. There are specific reasons a court will invalidate a will, including:
- Incompetent testator. One of the requirements for making a valid will is that the testator must not have been mentally incompetent at the time that they executed the will. The statute describes mentally competence as being of “sound mind.” Wash. Rev. Code § 11.12.010. The testator must also be at least 18 years old. If there is evidence that the testator was mentally incompetent or less than 18 years old, there would be grounds for invalidating the will.
- Unlawful execution. To be valid in Washington, the will must in writing. It must also include the signatures of the testator as well as 2 witnesses. If any of these formalities is absent, there would be grounds for the challenge to probate.
- Fraudulent. If fraudulent representations induced the testator to make a will, the will would be fraudulent.
- Duress. If the testator did not execute the will voluntarily, it would not be a valid will.
- Undue influence. If the will was made because someone illegally pressured the testator to do so, it would not be valid.
- Other. Any other issue impacting the validity of all or part of the will.
Consequences of a Will Contest in Washington
If a will contest is successful, the court will either probate a prior or later valid will, or it will declare the decedent to be intestate. This means that the decedent’s assets will go to family members who are their closest next-of-kin according to Washington’s intestate succession laws. Wash. Rev. Code § 11.04.
Note that under Washington law a will contest is also defined as objecting to a will being rejected. If a will was submitted to probate and the court denied probate, an interested party has the right to file a petition challenging the rejection of the will and requesting that the court admit it to probate. If the petition is granted, the will would be admitted.