Which will: What to do if your loved one left multiple wills

5 min read

Things to know if there is more than one will

  • Usually a newer will negates any older ones, so the latest one is the valid one.

  • The court will validate the latest will unless it can be proved it was created improperly, fraudulently, unknowingly, or unwillingly.

  • It is very difficult to contest a will, and only beneficiaries or potential heirs can do so.

  • Try to approach family members with compassion and understanding and keep the focus on fulfilling your loved one's wishes and honoring their legacy.

Faithfully executing the provisions of their will is the best way to ensure you’re honoring your loved one’s wishes after they’ve passed. Which is why it’s important to make sure you have the most recent and complete version to file with the probate court. The will with the most recent date that was validly written and executed is your loved one’s last will and testament, and it governs the estate. However, if you find a previous will, and there is a reason to suspect or contend that the latest-dated will was not created validly, the previous will may be the correct one. 

If this happens, you might also find yourself in the position of needing to contest the will that was filed in probate court. This process can be long and fraught, involving potential conflict between family members and others involved in the estate. However, if everyone stays focused on respecting your loved one’s wishes, it will get resolved either in court or with legal assistance and professional mediation.

Patience and understanding are key to this process. Wills are a touchy subject for many families, especially if someone feels left out or slighted by the terms. These high-stakes emotional moments are interwoven with grief, and sometimes people will act in uncharacteristic ways. Try to assume the best of those you love, and remember that everyone handles grief differently. 

When you can contest a will

You can’t simply contest a will because you are unhappy with its contents or outcome. A will is a legally binding document, and once it’s verified by the courts it will need to be followed exactly. However, for certain parties there are legal grounds for contesting a will. These can be difficult to prove, though, and it takes a lot of time and money to do so.

Generally, the only people who can contest a will are beneficiaries who were named in a previous will, or anyone who would be eligible to inherit property under the state’s intestacy laws if there were no will. And these people can only contest a will in limited circumstances, most commonly:

  • The will was not signed in accordance with state law. For example, some states require two witnesses and to have the parties all in the same room. Typically, lawyers will be very familiar with these laws and should have made sure there was a properly signed will. However, that’s not always the case. 

  • There’s a question about your loved one’s capacity to sign a will. “Testamentary capacity” means that the person understands the value of their assets and who should logically inherit them. Short of a doctor’s visit or adjudication within a few days of the signing of the will, this is extremely difficult to prove.

  • The person was unduly influenced. To prove undue influence, you’d need to show that your loved one was under extreme pressure that caused them to be unable to exercise their free will.

  • The will was procured by fraud. In this case, your loved one might have been told the document was a power of attorney or deed, but it was, in fact, a will. To prove this, you’d need multiple witnesses willing to testify to the fact. 

  • There is a more recent version of the will. Most wills begin with legal language officially revoking all previous wills. Even if this language doesn't appear, the law generally assumes the most recent will is the valid one.

All of these situations require a degree of proof that is difficult to obtain after your loved one has passed, because these are often interpersonal affairs. You’ll need to prove lies or wrongdoing, or have medical evidence to show in court. However, in many cases, the parties will agree to settle in order to avoid the case dragging out.

How to contest a will

If you believe that you have grounds and legal standing to contest a will, you will need to file a claim within your state’s statute of limitations. This period starts as soon as you receive notice of probate.

It’s a good idea to find an estate lawyer. They’ll save you a lot of time and paperwork (or warn you if they think you don’t have legal grounds to contest). A lawyer will be expensive, but they’ll almost certainly increase your chances of winning your case.

You or your attorney will submit a claim in the county probate court where your loved one’s will is being processed.

You can’t simply contest a will because you are unhappy with its contents or outcome.

You should be prepared for the same proceedings as a civil trial, including sitting for a deposition, submitting evidence, presenting documents to prove your case, and even testifying on the stand.  Unless you represent yourself, all of this will incur legal fees.

After this process is complete, a judgement will be passed down and, if you win, you and the other parties will be able to take control of any assets you claimed. Be warned, though, that this can significantly delay the probate process. 

What to do if there are multiple wills

While your loved one was alive, they may have written and revised multiple wills based on life events like marriages, divorces, children’s births, etc. Typically, every will says that all previous wills are revoked, but there could be reason to doubt the validity of the most recent will.

If there are two wills presented to the probate court, a judge will determine which is the valid will. Usually, it’s a simple case of which is the most recent, but the court will also take into account the above scenarios to make sure, for example, that your loved one was in the right state of mind when writing it. 

Filing a will is usually a straightforward process, but it can be complicated by broken relationships and family members who feel slighted. If you find yourself involved in the process of a will being contested, remember that the end goal is to honor your loved one and the legacy they wanted to leave behind ●