Contesting a Will in a Kentucky Court

Losing a loved one is challenging on its own without the added strain of fighting over the decedent’s last will and testament. Contesting a will can bring about unnecessary bitterness, and it is best resolved swiftly and fairly so that the heirs and benefactors can move on with their lives and bring much-needed closure to a difficult time.

If you are the victim of a will contest in Kentucky, this article will give you the essential information you need to understand the will contest procedure, when people can validly contest a will in Kentucky, and what you can do about it.

This is not legal advice. Please always consult with a competent estate planning attorney for any specific advice on your particular case and situation.

Under what grounds can a will be contested under Kentucky law?

There are several grounds under which a will in Kentucky can be contested. Some of these grounds are more likely to succeed than others.

1. Testator Under Undue Influence or Stress

To contest a will under these grounds one must prove that the influencer has destroyed “every chance of the exercise of [the testator’s] own will on his part in the disposal of his estate,” according to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

As a result, this is a rare reason for contesting a will in Kentucky.

Some examples of where this could be the case might include:

  • Intoxicating the testator heavily and getting them to sign/write a will in that state
  • Threats/blackmail

2. Fraudulent Will

A forged signature is grounds for contesting a will in Kentucky.

If someone gets the testator to sign a will when the testator believes they are signing another type of document, this is also considered fraudulent.

If the will was written and/or signed in the presence of an attorney, contesting a will on these grounds is highly unlikely to succeed.

3. Lacked Testamentary Intent

Notes on napkins or rapidly scribbled documents can be contested under the grounds of lack of testamentary intent.

To prove a will, one must prove that the testator intended to give the document legal intent. When looking at holographic (handwritten) wills, this is sometimes difficult to establish, especially when the “testator” does not dispose of his or her entire estate in the document.

This is one of the reasons people should always get their wills written and validated by a competent estate planning attorney. The fact that a will is typed out and witnessed by a lawyer shows that the testator did indeed intend for the document to have legal intent.

4. Defective Formalities

There are certain formalities that must be adhered to when writing a will in Kentucky.

These formalities are:

  • Holographic (handwritten) wills must be written entirely in the testator’s own handwriting, and signed.
  • Non-holographic wills must be acknowledged by the testator in the presence of at least two witnesses to be valid in a Kentucky court. Each witness must sign the will at the bottom.

Unfortunately, failing to adhere to these formalities is strong grounds for contesting a will in Kentucky.

5. The Testator was a Minor

Kentucky law requires a testator to be 18 years or older. Wills written by minors are automatically invalidated and so they are rarely (if ever) contested in a Kentucky court.

Minors who are parents, however, are able to write a will with the limited intent of assigning a guardian for their child or children.

6. The Testator was Not of Sound Mind

If it can be proved that the testator was not of sound mind at the moment of execution (writing) of the will, then this might be grounds for contesting a will in Kentucky.

This is a difficult point to prove as the standard used by Kentucky courts for determining whether someone had the capacity to write a will is phenomenally low. A history of psychiatric treatment or excessive drug use might not be enough to prove this point.

Even if the point is proved, courts sometimes acknowledge that a testator had a “lucid” period in which the will was written. That would nullify any contest of the will.

7. Revoked Will

If a testator writes a second will, then the first will can be contested on the grounds that it was revoked by the later will.

Later wills do not automatically revoke earlier wills. If the earlier will has not been physically destroyed, then Kentucky courts might consider the later will to be a codicil (addendum) to the earlier will, unless the later will explicitly revokes the earlier will.

8. Ambiguity

If a will clearly contains a mistake, such as failing to state who receives a gift, the will might be reformed or clarified by the court. The mistake must be extremely clear to see. The Kentucky Court of Appeals has drawn a comparison to such mistakes as “pockmarks” on the skin, so not any mistake will do.

For easy reference, we have put together the following summary of the grounds under which a will can be contested in Kentucky:

Grounds for Contesting a Will in Kentucky

Ground Chances of success?
Testator was under undue stress Difficult to prove.
Fraudulent will If forgery is obvious, grounds are strong.
Defective formalities Strong. Kentucky has strict laws for the format of a will. If these are violated, the contestor has a strong case.
Testator was a minor Rarely make it to court because wills by minors are immediately invalidated and therefore cannot be proved.
Testator was not of sound mind Can be extremely challenging to prove. Kentucky has very low standards for determining whether someone is of “sound mind.”
Revoked will Depends on the case. If the old will was not physically destroyed, and the new will does not explicitly cancel the previous will, then the new will could be considered a codicil (addition) to the old one. Hiring an attorney is highly advised in such cases.
Ambiguity The ambiguity or mistake must be extremely clear. If it is, the contestor generally has a strong case.

What is the procedure for contesting a will in Kentucky?

The first thing to know is that the district court for the county in which the decedent resided just before their death is the entity responsible for proving the will.

Contesting a will in Kentucky after the district court has proved or rejected it is not an easy process.

To successfully contest a will in Kentucky, the following general steps must be followed:

1. Demonstrate “standing”

“Standing” is a legal term that means that the party in question has the right to file a suit in court.

In the matter of a will, the party would need to show that they had been harmed in some way by the proving of the will.

A person can also challenge a will that was rejected. By proving that they were harmed under the law by the rejection of the will, the challenger would have standing under Kentucky Law, and would therefore be allowed to file suit.

2. File the complaint formally at the circuit court level

Once the district court has issued its decision regarding the will’s validity, you must file an official complaint at the circuit court level regarding the will.

Contesters of a will have two years to file the complaint but if it is filed within one year, then the assets bequeathed in the will are frozen for distribution.

3. Inform the county clerk of the action

The county clerk—the elected official responsible for maintaining public records—must be informed of the legal action. This notice must include certain technical details such as the date of the court filing and the case number.

This step is best done by an attorney.

4. Officially serve the complaint

Anyone who might be negatively impacted by modification or nullification of the will must be officially served regarding the challenge. The same applies to any interested parties who will be affected by the proceedings.

5. Discovery

The process of discovery follows next. This is the formal exchange of information between the parties involved and forms a part of every court case to avoid an “ambush” on the date of the trial. Depositions (sworn evidence) are taken, and sometimes interrogatories (written questions) are submitted to interested parties.

Following the discovery process, a trial date is set. Sometimes, parties might move for an earlier trial date to speed matters along.

What happens if a will is successfully contested in Kentucky?

If a will is successfully challenged, one of several things happen depending on the circumstances:

  • If the will is invalidated then the decedent will be considered “intestate”—a technical term for someone who dies without a will. That means that the court will dispose of the person’s assets in accordance with Kentucky intestate laws, where relatives get certain percentages of the decedent’s estate.
  • If the will was reformed or reworded, the assets will be distributed according to the new version of the will.
  • If an invalid will is found to be valid after the challenge, then the assets will be disposed of according to the will’s original intent.

What should you do if someone contests a will in Kentucky?

The best thing to do in the case of contesting a will in Kentucky is to immediately hire a competent attorney who can help you navigate the situation skillfully. Trying to navigate a will contest without legal counsel will greatly reduce your chances of winning.

To avoid contests of wills in the first place, it is imperative that you hire an attorney who knows how to word a will properly so that no question of its validity and intent can be entered into after the testator’s death.

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