From our “Ask a Question” mailbag: My grandfather, a resident of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, died of dementia 12 years ago. Shortly before his death, his will was changed, giving everything to my aunt. We believed that my grandfather died broke. However, now that my aunt died, we found out that he had a joint account with her containing a large sum of money. The prior will states that I would receive one-fourth of his estate. Can I challenge the will?
First, a will challenge case alone based on incapacity or undue influence, even if successful, would not help you. You stated that the funds were in a joint account. A joint account passes outside of probate, meaning the will has no effect on the joint ownership. To be successful, you would first have to prove that the joint account was created improperly — perhaps under undue influence or forgery — so that the assets would pour into that account instead of into the estate. Then, you would still have to prove that the existing will was invalid.
Your question didn’t provide the context we often hear when clients ask us about situations like these. In some instances, descendants could really use a windfall to help cover mounting personal debts from medical expenses. Other times, we hear from family members trying to resolve long-standing rivalries or other interpersonal disputes.
Whatever your own motivations, you have waited about eleven years too long to pursue this particular case.
In your grandfather’s city, will challenges or will contests must be brought within one year of the will’s probate with the Philadelphia Register of Wills. A will challenge is an appeal from that probate. After one year you are no longer able to appeal that probate.
This time limit makes sense, otherwise there would never be a way to ensure that estate assets could be sold without a future challenge. If you had acted within one year, you could have challenged the will. You were an interested party because if the will filed for probate was found invalid, you would have inherited one-fourth of the estate. You would have then also had the right to do discovery and find out how the account landed in joint possession with your Aunt.
If you have questions about avoiding Philadelphia probate, or if you want to explore the kind of estate planning you’ll need to make sure your own heirs never face this dilemma, feel free to contact our office for a free consultation.