In our last post, we provided an overview of inheritance disputes in Texas. Now, we will focus on the biggest driver of inheritance disputes—whether a last will and testament is valid under Texas law.
Several common scenarios lead to disputes over the wills in Texas. The deceased person’s will may be invalid because they had dementia and could not fully understand what they were doing. Or perhaps the deceased person was under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they signed the will. The person who benefitted from the will may have put improper pressure on the deceased person to make the will. The document presented as a will does not meet the strict technical requirements that Texas law demands. Texas courts may find that a will is invalid for any of these reasons, which we discuss in more detail below.
This series focuses on inheritance disputes when a person dies with a will. Importantly, inheritance disputes may still arise when the deceased person did not leave a will. For example, a romantic partner may claim to be a common law spouse, or an unknown person may claim part of an estate as the supposed long-lost child of the deceased person. We break down those scenarios in our previous series, Determining of Heirs in Dallas and Other Texas Areas, which we encourage you to visit.
Now, back to the matter at hand—the reasons why a will may be invalid. The following legal claims allows certain people to bring a “will contest,” in which they attempt to invalidate a will and prevent it from reducing their inheritance.
Dallas, Texas Wills Are Invalid If They Were Executed When the Deceased Person Lacked Testamentary Capacity
Texas law requires that any person who leaves a last will and testament has the appropriate mental state when they sign the will. The technical term for this is “testamentary capacity.” More specifically, the person who writes the will, called the “testator,” must have each of the following mental abilities:
- understanding that they are signing a will and not some other type of document; and
- understanding how the will is going to divide and distribute their property; and
- being able to identify the property they own; and
- being able to identify their closest family members who would naturally receive their property if there was no will; and
- having the memory to collect all of the preceding thoughts, understand how they relate to each other, and make a reasonable judgment based on those thoughts.
If the testator lacks any of the preceding mental abilities, then they cannot validly execute a will. When a person executes a will without testamentary capacity, anyone affected by the invalid will may file a dispute with the probate court. If successful, the judge enters an order saying that the will is invalid and has no legal effect.
Any number of conditions may cause the lack of testamentary capacity. Some of the most common include Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; use of prescribed narcotics and other medications with mental side effects; use of illegal drugs and alcohol; traumatic brain injuries; strokes and other vascular events; intellectual disabilities; and schizophrenia and other severe mental disorders.
There are many considerations that help build a case for lack of testamentary capacity, including medical evidence, witness testimony, litigation strategy, and expert participation. If your inheritance was affected by a will signed without testamentary capacity, we strongly recommend that you engage an experienced probate litigation specialist to pursue this claim.
A Texas Will Is Invalid If the Deceased Person Was Unduly Influenced
The claim of “undue influence” is another common way to dispute a will in Texas. When you see the will, it just doesn’t make any sense—grandpa never would have done that! You begin to suspect that the will was someone else’s doing. The good news is that you may be able to protect your inheritance by bringing a claim for undue influence.
Undue influence leads to an invalid will if someone influenced the deceased person, overpowered their mind and intentions, and caused them to sign a will that they never would have otherwise signed. Often, the testator was unduly influenced when they also lacked testamentary capacity. But a claim for undue influence may be proven even when the deceased person had testamentary capacity. Here are some hypothetical scenarios that illustrate undue influence, regardless of whether the testator had testamentary capacity:
- A caretaker is hired to assist an elderly person. The caretaker takes advantage the elderly person’s frail condition and whispers lies to her: I’m the only one who truly cares for you, your family never visits you, and they don’t deserve anything from you. The elderly person then makes a will that leaves her estate to the caretaker and disinherits her own family.
- Two brothers have had lifelong animosity toward each other. When the older brother is busy with a new child, the younger brother sees his chance for revenge. He constantly pesters his father to change his will, saying you know my older brother already has a good job, I need your money more than he does. After a months-long campaign, the father finally relents and executes a new will that leaves more money to her younger son.
- A successful businessman executes a will that leaves his estate to several charities. On a late night at the office, a younger colleague seduces him and suggests an illicit exchange. Motivated by desire, the businessman hastily makes and signs a new will in favor of the younger colleague.
The above scenarios are merely a few situations where undue influence may exist. In reality, any number of scenarios may lead to undue influence. The influence often occurs under your nose, when you least expect it. An experienced probate attorney can help you correct the resulting injustice and reclaim your inheritance.
Texas Wills Must Follow Strict Rules
Texas law requires that testators follow strict rules when making and signing their wills. Even one slip-up may result in an invalid will, with no legal effect whatsoever. If you are in an inheritance dispute, you may be able to invalidate a will that fails to meet the formal requirements below.
Fundamentally, all Texas wills must follow strict rules:
- MUST be a written document. There is no such thing as an oral will.
- MUST be signed by the testator and two witnesses, when all three are in each other’s presence. Essentially, that means the testator and the witnesses need to be in the same room, be able to hear one another, and be able to see each other sign the will.
- The two witnesses CANNOT receive anything from the will.
Note that Texas law does not strictly require that wills are notarized or have a self-proving affidavit. Most wills prepared by lawyers are, in fact, notarized and contain a “self-proving affidavit,” which makes it easier to prove the will was signed with the appropriate formalities. That said, a will can be perfectly valid even though it was not notarized.
In addition, Texas law also allows testators to make a handwritten will with entirely different requirements. This is called a “holographic will,” which has the following requirements:
- MUST be written entirely in the testator’s handwriting.
- MUST be signed by the testator.
- MUST be obvious that the testator intends the document to be his or her actual will.
The last requirement is often the most vexing. There is a thin line between (1) a note-to-self or brainstorming session for the creation of a formal will, which has no legal effect, and (2) a valid holographic will. A Dallas probate attorney can help advise you on this critical distinction.
Other Grounds for Will Disputes Include Fraud, Duress, and Forgery
Texas law provides several less common avenues to challenge a will. In appropriate circumstances, you may be able to use them in a will contest.
–Fraud may occur when a person makes a false promise to the testator for the purpose of inducing the testator to sign a new will.
–Duress is formed when the testator is in an extreme scenario—such as literally having a gun to his or her head—causing them to make a new will.
–Forgery also results in an invalid will. Forgery claims tend to be brought against holographic wills more often than formal wills.
To make a successful claim for testamentary capacity, undue influence, lack of legal formality, or any other reason, you must carefully build your case, often with circumstantial and/or medical evidence. We strongly recommend that you hire an experienced probate attorney to help you assess, build, and pursue these complex cases.
In our next post, we will discuss the way courts process wills and the steps you can take to prevent loss of inheritance due to an invalid will. To say the least, timing is everything!
Our will contest and inheritance dispute lawyers regularly represent clients disputing substantially valuable estates in the DFW area and throughout Texas. If you think we can help you, please contact us today. Our offices also service Plano, Frisco, McKinney, Denton, Fort Worth, Garland, Irving, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Nacogdoches, Lufkin, and Center.