A will caveat is a special proceeding in which parties can challenge the validity of a document purporting to be the last will and testament of the decedent. The question to be answered is whether the purported will is valid. As a result, admissible evidence and potential remedies are limited to a determination of that question.
A caveat proceeding is initiated when an individual (the “decedent”) dies, leaving behind a document purporting to be his or her will. The purported will is submitted to the clerk of court to be probated. Any interested party – any party with a pecuniary or beneficiary interest in the decedent’s estate, whose interest is detrimentally affected by the terms of the purported will – may file thereafter file a caveat within the three-year statute of limitations. After the caveat is filed, an alignment hearing occurs, in which parties interested in the estate align either with the caveator (i.e., the party challenging the will) or the propounder (i.e., the party supporting the validity of the will).
Common Grounds for Filing a Caveat
Since a caveat seeks only to determine whether the purported will is valid, the grounds for challenging the will’s validity are narrow.
Undue influence is a common basis for challenging the validity of a will. The caveator typically argues the purported will is an expression of the desires of another individual, rather than of the decedent, because of the individual’s control of the decedent. To establish a prima facie case of undue influence, the caveator must show:
- The decedent was subject to influence;
- The beneficiary (i.e, the party purportedly influencing the decedent) had an opportunity to exert his or her influence on the decedent;
- The beneficiary had a disposition to exert such influence; and
- The resulting will indicates undue influence.
The North Carolina Supreme Court provided a non-exhaustive list of factors to consider in determining whether the above elements are present, including the age and physical and mental health of the decedent, the isolation of the decedent, and whether the beneficiary is related to the decedent by blood.
Another common basis for challenging the validity of a will is lack of testamentary capacity. North Carolina presumes the decedent possessed adequate capacity when preparing and executing a will; however, the caveator can challenge this presumption by establishing a lack of one of the following elements of testamentary capacity:
- The decedent comprehends the natural objects of his bounty;
- The decedent understands the nature, kind, and extent of his property;
- The decedent knows the manner in which he desires his act to take effect; and
- The decedent realizes the effect his act will have upon his estate.
The caveator must present evidence that directly challenges one of the above elements regarding the decedent’s capacity at the time of the execution of the purported will. Evidence demonstrating a general decline of the decedent’s mental acuity leading up to the will’s execution is insufficient.
The jury in a caveat proceeding has the authority to determine either that the will is valid (i.e., the caveator’s challenge is unsuccessful) or that the will is invalid (i.e., that the caveator’s challenge is successful). The court also has discretion to award the costs of the proceeding, as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees, to the prevailing party.
If you have questions regarding the validity of a will, please give us a call at (704) 457-1010 to schedule a consultation. For more information regarding our firm, attorneys, and practice areas, please visit http://www.lindleylawoffice.com/.