What to Look for in a Will Contest

As the World Series just ended, many of us forget the greatest hitter to ever live, Ted Williams, never won a World Series. Unfortunately, Williams played his entire big-league career for the Boston Red Sox during the 86-year curse of the Bambino. Williams came the closest to winning the World Series in 1946 against the St. Louis Cardinals but came up short.

Despite the World Series heartbreak, Williams is widely considered one of the all-time greats. Williams set out to be known as the greatest hitter to ever live, but after his death, Williams became known as the guy who is cryonically frozen. What led to Williams being frozen is a bizarre turn of legal events regarding his Will and a subsequent note signed by him and his children from a second marriage. The note had nothing to do with Williams’s assets and only what happened with his body after death. The note was signed by Williams and his two children, John Henry and Claudia Williams in a hospital before surgery in 2000 when Williams was 80. The note was in contrast with Williams’s 1996 Last Will and Testament, where he opted to be cremated and have his ashes sprinkled in the Florida Keys.

The note Williams signed sparked a legal controversy between the daughter from his first marriage and the children from his second marriage. While the 1996 Will was properly executed under Florida law, there is no requirement that instructions for remains is subject to the same Will formalities. The note was then tested to ensure it was Williams’s signature. The case ended when a handwriting expert deemed the signature was indeed that of Ted Williams.

There are a couple of takeaways from the Ted Williams saga. First, what you can do to ensure your remains are taken care of the way you want them to be. Second, what to look for when loved ones are filling out Wills, Trusts, and other Testamentary documents.

Alabama Code § 34-13-11 (2)(b)

In Alabama as in Florida there is no requirement for Testator’s to have instructions for their remains in a Will or executed with Will Formalities. It is often very uncommon for instructions of remains to be inserted in a Last Will and Testament. However, Alabama Code § 34-13-11 (2)(b) sets forth a form where a decedent can authorize someone to make burial decisions for them.

What to Look for in a Will Contest

In the context of a Will Contest, the story of Ted Williams is an example of things to look for when contesting a Will. There are several ways to challenge a Will: (1) Non-compliance with Will formalities, (2) Incapacity, (3) Undue Influence, and (4) Duress.

First, Alabama has strict Will Formalities that all must be met for a Will to be valid. For a Will or Codicil to be valid in Alabama, the Testator must comply with strict Will Formalities requiring the Will to be (1) in writing, (2) Signed by the testator, (3) signed by at least two witnesses who saw the Testator sign.

Second, a testator must have capacity for a Will to be valid. Capacity for a Will requires the testator to be over the age of 18 and of sound mound. A sound mind is a very low standard. The testator must understand the consequences of making a will, the property being devised, the beneficiaries, and how the property is to be distributed. Wills are valid even when people have serious illnesses like Dementia as long as they are lucid in the moment.

Third, there is undue influence. To prove a presumption of undue influence, a contestant must show (1) a confidential relationship existed, (2) the beneficiary’s influence over the testator was controlling, (3) undue activity on the part of the beneficiary to obtain the estate plan. In Williams’s case undue influence is likely the best grounds to win a contest, as his son John Henry was his manager, scheduler, and there was evidence he kept Williams away from other family member and friends.

Lastly, duress can be used to invalidate a Will when someone threatens or puts intense pressure on a testator on making a Will and/or what to put in that Will.

When you or a loved one are planning your estate make sure all formalities are complied with, there is no undue influence, the testator has capacity, and there is no duress. And be sure to think of ole Teddy Ballgame.