By David K. Goldfarb (Summer Associate)
Question: If your will designates your same-sex spouse as the sole beneficiary, will your relatives have a valid (and potentially successful) claim against your estate?
Estate planning can be a very stressful time for all married couples, especially when children and other relatives need to be considered. However, under normal circumstances, one need not be overly concerned with the validity of his will and the possibility of relatives bringing claims against a surviving spouse that has been designated as the sole beneficiary under that will. It is typically very difficult to challenge a will. Approximately 99% of wills are enforced without any issues. Courts interpret wills as the voice of the testator (the person who wrote the will). Since that person is deceased and no longer able to express his wishes, courts are extremely hesitant to alter the terms of the will.
As a general rule, a party must have an interest in order to challenge a will, and that interest must be substantial, direct, and immediate. It is very likely that a court would conclude that close relatives, like children, have a substantial, direct, and immediate interest in your will. Thus, your relatives would likely be able to bring a claim against your estate. However, such a claim is unlikely to prevail.
As an initial matter, Pennsylvania law expressly allows you to disinherit (deprive someone of inheritance) every individual other than your spouse. Furthermore, your relatives, or any other challenger, would have a very limited number of grounds for bringing a claim against your same-sex spouse. Most grounds address the procedural process for the creation of a will and are easily addressed by retaining an attorney to assist in your estate planning. The two substantive grounds are that the individual lacked the mental capacity necessary for creating a valid will and that the will was procured by fraud, forgery, or undue influence.
In order to challenge a will based on mental capacity, the challenger must prove that the testator did not understand the consequences of making the will at the time of the will’s creation. Adults are presumed to have the necessary mental capacity required for the creation of a will, thus this argument is usually limited to the context of an individual diagnosed with dementia who revises their will towards the end of their life.
In order to challenge a will based on fraud, forgery or undue influence, the challenger essentially must prove that the will was not created by the deceased or that the deceased was forced via threats to create the will. No matter the situation, it would be wise to have several witnesses, including an attorney, present during the creation of your will. Most states require a typed hard copy of the will signed by the testator in the presence of at least two adult witnesses who are not named as heirs in the will.
It is advisable to consult with a Trusts & Estates attorney as part of your estate planning to ensure that no potential claimant could prevail against your same-sex spouse in challenging the will.