California estate litigation: An introduction to the will contest

California law allows a will to be opposed in state court based on several grounds.

When a Californian dies, if he or she has a will, it can be submitted to state court to be probated, meaning that the court determines whether the will is valid, appoints a personal representative to administer the estate and orders the will's provisions carried out, including distribution of the decedent's property.

When an interested party believes that a legal ground to contest the will's validity exists, he or she can file objections with the court. This kind of a lawsuit is often called a will contest.

This area of California law is complex, so seeking experienced legal counsel can be crucially important in preserving rights, understanding options and having strong advocacy in a will contest, whichever side the person is on.

Even the determination of whether a party who wants to challenge a will has standing to do so as an interested person can be a disputed legal question. Generally, an interested person must have a financial or property interest in the estate that could potentially be impacted financially by the outcome of the will contest.

In addition to natural persons like heirs, will beneficiaries, children, parents or spouses, sometimes interested parties can also be entities such as governmental agencies or business creditors. The representative of an interested person like a guardian or conservator can also be an interested person.

Normally, the personal representative is the person who defends the will, called its proponent. A will can be found invalid if it was not properly executed according to the formalities required by law. For example, was it property witnessed? Does it meet the requirements for a valid handwritten (holographic) will? It is the personal representative's role to prove appropriate execution in a will contest.

Generally, depending on the circumstances, other grounds for challenging a will must be proven by the will contestant. Additional grounds for a will's invalidity in California include:

  • Lack of testamentary intent: The document must indicate by its language and other evidence that the testator (person executing the will) intended for the document to be a will that disposes of his or her property at death.
  • Lack of testamentary capacity: The testator must have been a legal adult of sound mind at the time the will was signed. Mental capacity to make a will looks at whether the testator understood the purpose of a will, the nature of his or her property and the people in his or her immediate family with interest in the property. A delusion or hallucination can create lack of capacity if it impacts the content of the will.
  • Undue influence: A will can be set aside if it was written by a vulnerable testator who lost the free will to leave his or her property according to his or her own wishes because of the controlling authority, control and influence of another person such as a relative, caregiver, spiritual advisor, attorney or other similar person.
  • Fraud: A will is invalid if its provisions were based on falsehoods believed by the testator because of the deceit of another person.
  • Duress or menace: A will written under duress such as by the imposition of illegal detention, threats or injury is invalid.
  • And others like mistake or revocation

From their offices in Concord, California, the attorneys at Mullin Law Firm represent clients in will contests and other kinds of estate litigation.