Grounds for Challenging a Will in Texas: What, When, Why & How
Find Out What It Takes to Contest a Will in Texas & What to Anticipate If You Do
Will contests can raise critical questions about how a will was created, executed, or revised potentially sparking some fiery conflicts in Texas probate courts. While challenging a will can be prudent in certain situations, it is not a recourse for beneficiaries to fight inheritances with which they simply disagree.
Instead, contesting a will is a serious action that has its own procedures, deadlines, and potential risks. There are also very specific grounds for challenging wills in Texas, and it can take some meticulous work to establish those grounds in court — or to prove them as specious — depending on the circumstances.
To help you navigate all that, along with the other ins and outs of will contests and inheritance disputes, here’s a closer look at:
Who Has Standing to Challenge a Will in Texas?
Under Texas law, those who are a party to the will typically have standing to contest that will in probate court. These parties can include:
- Beneficiaries named in the will: These parties could dispute the validity of the will if, for example, they believe a newer will is invalid while a prior will, granting them a more favorable inheritance, is legitimate.
- Disinherited individuals: When folks are cut out of wills completely, either by omission or through terms specifying that they are not to get anything, it’s not uncommon for these parties to be at the forefront of will contests.
- Intestate heirs: This refers to the heirs who would have been entitled to an inheritance under state law if the decedent had not left behind a will (i.e., had the decedent died intestate). These parties may include spouses, children, and parents, and they may try to revoke a will if they feel that the will is not legal and that Texas intestacy laws would provide a fairer distribution of the estate.
Please be aware that:
- Determining legal standing is usually the first step in a potential will contest: Attempting to challenge a will without standing will typically lead to a dismissal of the action.
- There are strict deadlines for challenging wills in Texas: According to Texas Estates Code (Sec. 256.204), interested parties have two (2) years from the date on which the probate case started to contest the will. There are exceptions here, as in forgery or fraud, in which case the deadline would be two years from the date on which the forgery or fraud was discovered.
6 Grounds to Challenge a Will in Texas
The grounds to contest a will in Texas cover some essential legalities associated with how a will was created, executed, or revised. When an interested party wants to challenge a will, (s)he only needs to cite one relevant ground as the basis for a claim. If that will contest is successful, the will can be invalidated, in which case the last will or state law would dictate how to divide the estate.
Here are the grounds for raising challenges to wills and what’s generally necessary to establish each in a Texas probate court.
1. Lack of testamentary capacity
Did the testator (the decedent) know they were creating or signing a will? Did they understand what was happening and were they of sound mind?
With a lack of testamentary capacity as grounds for contesting a will, the argument is:
- The testator was not of sound mind when they were creating, executing, or updating a will.
- The testator did not comprehend how their estate will be divided up among their beneficiaries.
While claims involving a lack of testamentary capacity can come up when wills are altered at the last minute, these grounds for will contests can also arise when decedents suffered certain medical conditions, like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
To start to establish a lack of testamentary capacity, helpful evidence may include (but is not limited to):
- Medical records
- Statements or testimony from treating physicians
- Witness statements
- Video footage of the decedent
2. Undue influence
Was the testator coerced or inappropriately persuaded into signing or revising their will?
If so, undue influence may have been at play, and it can be harder to establish in court than it seems. That’s because proving that influence, pressure, or even coercion was involved can be largely based on he-said, she-said arguments and circumstantial evidence, rather than physical evidence, like an audio or video recording that shows some type of coercive influence.
With undue influence as the basis of a will contest, it’s not uncommon to see factors like (but not limited to) the following also involved:
- Caregivers, new romantic partners, or others are suddenly added as last-minute beneficiaries.
- Last-minute changes to the will are odd and conflict with the greater estate plan.
- The decedent was in a vulnerable state when the will was changed.
3. Failure to adhere to statutory requirements
Was the will legally drafted and properly executed, according to Texas law?
If not, it’s not valid. Specifically, that can mean:
- There is no written version of the will. Texas law requires laws to be written in order to be valid.
- The testator has not executed (signed) the will. For the disabled who are not physically able to sign their name, making some mark to represent a signature is sufficient under Texas law.
- Two witnesses did not observe the will being signed by the testator. These witnesses must be at least 14 years old, and they should be uninterested parties, meaning not beneficiaries named in the will.
- The witnesses didn’t sign the will in the presence of the testator.
Failures to meet any of those statutory requirements are another basis for contesting wills in Texas.
4. Fraud in the inducement
Was the testator deceived into signing or updating the will, based on some material misrepresentation?
Fraud in inducement occurs when a testator signs or updates a will as a result of relying on false information they have been provided. The idea is that:
- The testator understood they were signing or updating the will.
- The testator only chose to sign or update the will based on false information they were provided by some other party. In other words, the testator would not have signed or updated the will if not for the material misrepresentation involved.
- The party who shared the false information knew it was incorrect and wanted the testator to act on it.
Some examples of material misrepresentations with this type of fraud can include:
- Falsifying stories about certain heirs to get them excluded from the will
- Exaggerating or faking medical conditions, illness, or injuries to get a more sizable inheritance
- Fabricating financial need, debts, or charities for inheritance purposes
Establishing fraud in inducement can be challenging, but witness statements can be helpful, along with medical records, financial records, email correspondence, and other items, depending on the specific nature of the fraud involved.
5. Fraud in the factum
Was the testator tricked into signing the will or an updated version of it, putting his John Hancock on the will documents without even realizing it?
Fraud in factum arises when testators sign a will or a newer will via deception that can involve:
- A misrepresentation of what they are signing: For instance, testators may be told they are signing a card, insurance documents, or anything else but a will.
- A misrepresentation of the terms: Testators may be lied to about what specifically is included in a will document, or the terms may be changed after they sign it.
As with fraud in inducement, proving fraud in factum can require various evidence to demonstrate:
- The nature of deception involved
- How the testator relied on the false information to sign the documents they were given
Was the decedent’s signature forged on the will document? Or was the entire will document forged?
Although forgery can be tricky to uncover, it can come to light whenever beneficiaries notice red flags like (but not limited to):
- Inconsistencies between what a decedent told them and what is in the will
- A newer, secret, “surprise” will that only one or a few interested parties seem to be aware of
- Oddities in the testator’s signature on the will, like a full name signature when the testator would only sign their initials
Keep in mind that Texas law allows a range of marks to serve as signatures on wills, including just one letter. Consequently, the evidence crucial to proving forgery in a will contest can include (but is not limited to):
- Items showing how the testator would typically sign their name at the same time they allegedly signed the will
- Reliable witnesses who can verify whether the testator knowingly signed the will document
Grounds to Challenge Wills in Texas & No Contest Clauses
Known as in terrorem clauses or forfeiture clauses, no contest clauses are included in wills to try to deter beneficiaries from challenging them. These clauses stipulate that beneficiaries who contest the will and who are wrong will forfeit their inheritance, as described in the will.
While that can be enough to curb frivolous will contests and disgruntled heirs, it should not deter those who do, in fact, have valid grounds to challenge a will.
When there are clear grounds to contest a will, along with some evidence to back it up, courts can recognize “good faith” exceptions to no contest clauses, using their discretion to reject these clauses. Further, individuals can always challenge the appointment of a specific executor regardless of the presence of a No Contest clause.
The Bottom Line: Challenging a Will Can Be a Real Challenge & Lawyers Can Help
With questionable wills, inheritance disputes, and will contests, the truth is there can be a lot on the line for all interested parties — and making a wrong move, rushing in without all the facts, or ignoring your gut feelings about a sketchy will could mean compromising your rights and interests.
Given everything that’s at stake and how complex will contests can be, partnering with an experienced attorney can be a prudent choice whether you’re raising the challenge or disputing it. A lawyer can help you determine your options, the best available strategies, and how to proceed, giving you better chances of presenting a stronger case while helping you set your case up for an optimal outcome.
Discover More About Will Contests & Probate
Challenging wills in Texas can open up contentious disputes while putting a spotlight on highly sensitive issues, from the fitness of the decedent to allegations of fraud, forgery, coercion, and beyond. No matter what’s on the line or what side of the dispute you stand on, you can turn to an experienced Austin probate attorney at the Law Office of Todd A. Wilson, now also TAW Law TX. We are ready to share confidential advice in a free, no-obligation consultation. Simply reach out to get more answers today.
Beyond joint and contractual wills, several aspects of estate planning and administration can put you in the center of sensitive situations and complicated, high-stakes choices. Whether you are a testator, an executor, a beneficiary, or another party handling important estate legal matters, you can turn to an experienced Austin estate and probate attorney at the Law Office of Todd A. Wilson (now also TAW Law TX). We are ready to share confidential advice in a convenient, no-obligation consultation. Simply reach out to get more answers today.
Todd A. Wilson
Todd A. Wilson has been practicing law since 2007, with the aim of educating all strata of society and sharing crucial insights about the importance of estate planning, probate, and more.
The Law Office of Todd A. Wilson (also known as TAW Law TX) offers affordable estate planning and probate services.