Picture this: your great aunt has died and left you and your brother each one million dollars, her entire estate, in a will. Great, right? Now imagine that your brother never appreciated your great aunt during her lifetime, and you were her sole caregiver for the last ten years of her life. How would you feel about getting the same amount of money as your brother? A little annoyed, right? So, you start thinking about challenging the inheritance that he received. Can you? The classic law school answer is: it depends.
Based on the facts I have provided in the first paragraph; you likely do not have grounds to challenge your brother’s inheritance. Under Massachusetts law, it is presumed that your great-aunt had the capacity to create a will. It is also presumed that people have the right to dispose of their property and assets in the manner they choose. So, if the only facts we have are that there is a will that divides your great aunt’s estate equally between you and your brother, you likely cannot mount a successful challenge to the will.
This is not to say that you are without a remedy, however. If you can prove the value you contributed to your great aunt’s life and your help unjustly enriched your great aunt, you may be able to bring a quantum meruit claim against your great aunt’s estate for the value of your services. While technically not a will contest, a quantum meruit claim is worthwhile if you have no grounds to contest a will.
Now, let’s change the facts slightly. Imagine that your great aunt executed a will in 2015 that left her entire estate to you as recognition of your efforts in caring for her. She was then diagnosed with dementia and executed her new will, dividing her estate equally between you and your brother just before her death. In this fact pattern, you may have grounds to challenge your brother’s inheritance based on your great aunt’s mental capacity. Massachusetts law requires that a person have what’s called testamentary capacity at the time of making a will. Therefore, your great-aunt must have been free from any mental disease or weakness that would influence how she chose to give away her property, and she must have understood what it means to make a will. You might choose to challenge the new will on the grounds that after her dementia diagnosis, your great-aunt lacked the capacity to execute the new will, and therefore the 2015 will should be probated. However, this case is an uphill battle because the law presumes that people have testamentary capacity. The most important evidence in this scenario will be your great aunt’s medical records.
Let’s now change the facts even more. Instead of you, your brother has cared for your great-aunt for the last ten years. You know that before your brother started taking care of her, your great-aunt’s will left her property for you and your brother in equal shares, as in the scenario above. However, when this will is filed, your brother comes forward with an even more recent will, where he inherits all of your great aunt’s estate, all $2 million. You know that your aunt did not have dementia, in fact, she was sharp as a tack for her entire life. However, in recent years, your brother began to isolate her, read her mail, answer her emails and text messages, and refuse to let her attend family events. In this scenario, your best chance to challenge your brother’s inheritance is likely on the grounds of undue influence. You have the burden to show that your great aunt has made an unnatural disposition of her property, that she was susceptible to undue influence, and that your brother had the opportunity to and did exercise his influence over her.
There is one final scenario I wish to discuss. Let’s keep the facts that your great-aunt died and had an estate of $2 million. Instead of you and your brother inheriting, however, imagine that your great-aunt had two children and four grandchildren. Her will left her entire estate to her children. Now can you challenge the inheritance of the children? In this scenario, you likely cannot challenge the inheritance. Here, you would have no standing to do so. Under the will, your great-aunt left her property to her children, a natural disposition. There is no evidence of undue influence in this fact pattern. Finally, even if you were to have the will invalidated, you would not inherit. Even if the will were invalidated, your great-aunt’s estate would pass according to the laws of intestacy, meaning that her closest relatives would inherit, in this case, her children. If you had, as in scenario one, contributed to your great aunt’s care during her final years of life, you might have a separate quantum meruit case. This would likely be your only opportunity to receive any money from your great-aunt’s estate
For more on the law of capacity and undue influence, see this post.
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