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Can I contest my deceased relative’s New York will?

Sometimes when a person dies, the relatives of the deceased may not agree with the terms or conditions that have been set forth by the decedent's last will and testament. Perhaps the first step in determining whether a will can be contested is to first understand the purpose of a will.

In New York, our Surrogate's Courts are the government agencies that are tasked with probating wills. New York surrogate courts currently recognizes a will as a written declaration regarding the manner in which a living person of sound mental capacity would like his or her property distributed upon his or her death. Generally, wills can transfer interests in personal property such as bank accounts, clothing or jewelry and they can also transfer real estate interests.

Under New York laws, there is a rebuttable presumption as to the validity of a properly formed will. In other words, a party that wants to contest a will has the burden of proving to the Surrogate's Court that the will is somehow invalid.

One strategy of contesting a will is to challenge the mental capacity of the person who created the will at the time that the will was formed. That person is otherwise known as the testator. New York case law says that the testator of a will must understand the nature and consequences of executing the will. That person must have also understood the nature and the extent of the property they were intending to transfer. There is also a requirement that the testator have understood who or what was going to be the object of his or her transfer of property.

In a nutshell, the Surrogate's Court may determine that a will is unenforceable if the person forming the will was suffering from some form of mental incapacity at the time. Alzheimer's disease, dementia or traumatic brain injuries are all examples of conditions that might affect the testator's intent at the time that the will was formed.

Your New York estate planning attorney can help you evaluate the circumstances of your particular case and determine whether your case has merit. It is important to know that mental incapacity is only one of several grounds on which the validity of a will can be contested.

Source: New York State Unified Courts System, "New York City Surrogate's Court- Frequently asked questions" accessed Jan. 12, 2015

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