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Burden of proof in probate litigation

Probate litigation can become necessary in a variety of circumstances. If you find yourself needing to take action, such as challenging a will or any of its provisions, it can be helpful to understand some basics about how Minnesota courts tend to handle such disputes.

Generally, those who submit the will as valid under Minnesota law have the initial burden of proving its validity. The basic legal requirements state that a will must be in writing, signed by the testator and by two witnesses to the signing.

Proving a will is valid

If the will appears to meet these requirements, it will stand up unless someone else challenges any of these points. Then, the proponent of the will have to bring in at least one of the witnesses to testify about the circumstances of the signing. To avoid this possibility, some use a self-proving will, which means that, at the time of the signing, the testator and witnesses also sign notarized affidavits attesting to their signatures.

Subsequent challenges

Once a will passes the hurdles of technical requirements, the court presumes it valid. However, it can still face other types of challenges. Common grounds for will contests include allegations of a lack of testamentary capacity or of undue influence. The party making these allegations now bears the burden of proving them.

Both undue influence and a lack of testamentary capacity allegations essentially argue that the will does not reflect the testator's actual will. In one case, this is because the testator lacked the understanding as to the effects of making a will. In the other, it is because someone exerted a level of influence that took over the testator's own volition.

Meeting the burden of proof

Because the testator is obviously not available to clarify his or her intentions and understanding, the challenger will largely have to rely on circumstantial evidence to meet his or her burden of proof. Types of helpful evidence may include medical and psychological reports, testimony from close associates and caregivers and evidence of illogical conduct.

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Mason & Helmers
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