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What Makes a Will Invalid? Common Challenges to a Will’s Validity in South Carolina
We write a lot on this blog about the last will and testament. That’s because it’s an extremely important document to have, particularly when you have a large estate or a complicated family situation. It’s the only legal document that speaks for you after you’re gone to ensure your wishes are carried out with respect to your estate. But it can only do that if it’s valid.
The proliferation of fill-in-the-blank, do-it-yourself wills online may make it seem like last wills are simple documents. They can be, but they can also be a legal minefield. A number of cases having to do with the validity of a will make it as far as the South Carolina Court of Appeals or even the South Carolina Supreme Court every year. The underlying issue in these cases is almost always the same: the validity of the will.
With that in mind, today we’re going to look at a few of the most common challenges to the validity of a will in the state of South Carolina.
South Carolina code states that “An individual who is of sound mind and who is not a minor […] may make a will” with the following basic requirements for validity:
- The will must be in writing
- It must be signed by the testator, or by someone else in the testator’s name and presence
- It must be signed by at least two individuals who witness the testator’s signing or the testator’s acknowledgement of signing the will
- Amendments to a will must also be witnessed by two individuals (as we looked at in a recent blog)
An error such as a missing signature can lead to challenges of the validity of the will.
Note that South Carolina does not require a will to be notarized, as the law provides for self-proving (but it is strongly recommended). Also note that South Carolina generally accepts out-of-state wills as valid, even if the will does not meet South Carolina’s criteria, as long as it meets the requirements of the state in which it was executed.
Lack of Testamentary Capacity
South Carolina code quoted above states that the testator must be of “sound mind.” This may be surprising, but the required level of what’s called “testamentary capacity” to execute a will is relatively low. To put it in perspective, a higher level of mental competency is required to sign a contract.
In South Carolina, testamentary capacity demands that you know at a minimum two things:
- The nature and extent of your bounty (that is, what you own)
- The natural objects of your bounty (that is, your heirs and close relatives)
The presumption is that adults have the testamentary capacity to make a will. If someone challenges a will on the basis of testamentary capacity, claiming the testator was not of sound mind, it’s up to them to provide clear and convincing evidence of that fact. This may be evidence of senility, dementia, insanity, mental illness that compromises sound judgment, declining cognitive function or memory, or the like. Proof may come in the form of medical records or sworn statements by the testator’s health care providers, caretakers, or friends and family who witnessed the testator’s condition during the time in question.
Another argument to challenge the validity of a will is undue influence. Undue influence occurs when a person influences or pressures the testator to change the terms of their will in the influencer’s favor. This influence takes away the testator’s free will and substitutes their own interests for those of the testator.
Undue influence may be tied together with lack of testamentary capacity, because it’s often an older person suffering from a degree of dementia or senility who is unduly influenced to change their will. The influencer may use tactics like physical force, threats, or isolation from family member and friends to get what they want.
If a will is challenged on these grounds, again, it’s up to the challenger to provide clear and convincing evidence that this is the case. (We recently touched on this issue of undue influence on a blog about no-contest clauses in wills, which you can read here.) Since undue influence can be more challenging to prove, let’s look at it more in-depth.
The Standard for Undue Influence
A recent case filed by the South Carolina Court of Appeals in April 2019 looks at the issue of undue influence, as well as testamentary capacity, when the validity of a will was challenged.
In short, Vinto Willis Tucker (Decedent) died in March 2012. He executed a will in January 2012 the same evening he discovered he had suffered an aneurysm. He did so by dictating the terms of his will to his niece in the presence of two witnesses, who confirmed that he raised the subject of a will and that his niece wrote down the terms as he requested.
The will divided his estate among twelve nieces and nephews but left out one niece and two nephews. In May 2013, Decedent’s sister, Mary Jean Tucker Swiger, petitioned for formal testacy, a proceeding to establish a valid will. She asserted that Decedent’s personal representatives (the niece who had written down Decedent’s will and a nephew) had exerted undue influence on him and sought to remove them as personal representatives.
In its decision, the Court of Appeals cited South Carolina code and other cases to establish a standard of review, including the following:
“Contestants of a will have the burden of establishing undue influence, fraud, duress, mistake, revocation, or lack of testamentary intent or capacity” S.C. Code Ann. § 62-3-407
“Undue influence must be shown by unmistakable and convincing evidence, which is usually circumstantial.” Russell v Wachovia (2003)
“Generally, in cases where a will has been set aside for undue influence, there has been evidence either of threats, force, and/or restricted visitation, or of an existing fiduciary relationship.” Russell v Wachovia (2003)
“A mere showing of opportunity or motive does not create an issue of fact regarding undue influence.” In re Estate of Cumbee (1999)
In the Swiger v Smith case at hand, the challenger presented no evidence of undue influence. The opinion states that “significantly,” the challenger didn’t provide any evidence that the nephew and niece restricted visitation of the challenger’s side of the family (which included the disinherited niece and nephews). The Court concluded that the challenger “failed to provide more than a scintilla of evidence to establish undue influence” and that “Decedent had the testamentary capacity to dispose of his estate.” Therefore, the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.
Ensuring Your Will is Valid
Having a last will go through litigation is something no one wants. It’s a time-consuming process that strains and destroys family relationships, eats up the estate’s resources, and makes private family information public. The best way to avoid this is to have a valid, up-to-date will.
Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure your will is valid and is worded to carry out your wishes after you’re gone. Gem McDowell and his associates at the Gem McDowell Law Group in Mount Pleasant near Charleston, South Carolina can help you. They are experienced at handling estate planning for all kinds of estates whether they’re small, large, straightforward, or complicated. Call to schedule a consultation to discuss your estate plan. Call 843-284-1021 today.