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We have all heard in the news of celebrities who have died and their heirs are now in protracted court battles involving the distribution of certain estate assets. This is not unique to celebrities, and can often happen with any individual(s) who have lost a family member where contests involving the will ensue. Estate litigation and will contests can become contentious, and New Jersey is no exception.

Common Will Contest Issues

Here are some common issues that can arise in will contests and estate litigation in New Jersey:

  • Validity of the Will: This brings up a broad range of challenges, including claims that the will:
    • Was not signed in accordance with New Jersey law.
    • Was not made by someone of sound mind (lacking testamentary capacity).
    • Was made under duress, coercion, or undue influence.
  • Lack of Capacity: This is when the beneficiaries/non- beneficiaries are arguing that the decedent did not have the mental capacity to understand the nature of the will or the implications of the decisions being made.
  • Undue Influence: Alleging that a beneficiary, typically someone in a position of trust, exerted excessive influence over the decedent to change their will in favor of that beneficiary.
  • Forgery: Allegations that the will, or a portion of it, is a fake or a forgery.
  • Ambiguities in the Will: The wording of a will might be vague or unclear, leading to disputes over its interpretation.
  • Executor Misconduct: Claims that the person responsible for administering the estate (the executor) is acting improperly, mismanaging assets, or not acting in the best interests of the beneficiaries.
  • Spousal Rights: In New Jersey, a surviving spouse has the right to an “elective share” of a deceased spouse’s estate. If they are not provided for adequately in the will, they can claim this share. Basically the law in New Jersey gives surviving spouses the right to a minimum equivalent to one-third of the “augmented estate” of the deceased spouse. “Augmented estate” means gross estate, decreased by certain administration fees. This elective share can be claimed even if the surviving spouse was given less than one-third of the estate in the partner’s will, or even if they were specifically disinherited in the will.
  • Omitted Children: Sometimes, children born after the execution of a will (or those accidentally omitted) might claim a share of the estate.
  • Breach of Fiduciary Duty: This arises when someone with a duty to act in the best interests of another, like an executor or trustee, fails to do so.
  • Improper Will Execution: New Jersey has specific requirements for how a will must be executed (for example,  the number of witnesses is 2 in New Jersey and the will must be in writing). If these requirements are not followed, the will’s validity can be challenged.
  • Challenges to Trusts: In addition to wills, trusts can be contested on similar grounds like lack of capacity, undue influence, or breaches of fiduciary duties by trustees.
  • Claims by Creditors: Creditors may make claims against the estate for unpaid debts.  These claims can sometimes be disputed by the estate or beneficiaries.
  • Estate Mismanagement: This involves claims that the assets of the estate are not being managed or distributed properly, or that they are being wasted or misused.
  • Determination of Heirs: There can sometimes be disputes over who the rightful heirs of the deceased are, especially if the decedent died without a will.
  • Revocation: Claims that the decedent revoked the will before death, rendering the will void.

Legal proceedings involving the estate can also take place in instances where the deceased has assets, but no will or trust exists. This is referred to as dying intestate and a formal court proceeding is required to be filed so that an administrator can be appointed by a Superior Court judge to finalize the estate.  The administrator is then legally empowered to represent the best interests of the estate.

Takeaway

Understanding these issues can be essential if you are involved in a will contest or estate litigation as a result of a loved one’s death. If you or someone you know is faced with such a situation, it is always recommended that you consult with an attorney well-versed in New Jersey estate law to navigate the complexities. Contact Bozanian McGregor to help you through an estate litigation situation. You can trust that we will provide you with legal, as well as emotional support, while you sort through these legal obstacles.