‘We are surprised and bewildered’: My brother passed away and left his house, cash and possessions to charity. Can his siblings contest his will?

Dear Quentin,

My brother just recently passed away in June. Instead of leaving his belongings to his siblings, he chose to donate to charity — that is, his home, furnishings and all of his remaining cash. I don’t understand why he would make such a decision. We are surprised and bewildered. He has left a will outlining his wishes for his estate, but can this will be contested?

Surprised Sister

Dear Sister,

If he wanted you to inherit his estate, all he would have to do is make no will at all.

Few people like such surprises, and no one likes to be left with a question mark. You may or may not have had a good relationship with your brother. In the event that you had no reason to assume bad blood between your brother and his siblings, it’s always best to assume that other people’s decisions have nothing to do with you. Don’t take it personally.

There are times when there are grounds for wills to be contested: a parent who was being controlled by a “new person” in their life or an abusive child, and/or someone who was forced to change their will when they were not of sound mind. In this case, however, it seems like your brother knew exactly what he was doing, and wanted to support his favorite charities. 

There is another issue of need vs. want and love vs. money. You would have liked for your brother to leave you money, but he believe others had less and needed more help. You don’t say anything in your letter about being in dire financial straits. This was his way to give back. The fact that he did not leave you money does not mean he did not love you, but you can love him more by supporting his last wishes.

You are not direct heirs (a parent or child); as siblings, you are collateral descendants.

A will can generally be contested on one of three grounds: lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence from a family member, and improper execution. The latter is often the easiest and most common way a will is contested and/or overturned: Say the will was improperly witnessed or not signed, or perhaps a later will exists, or there was some evidence of fraud.

Your brother did not mention the family in the will to specifically disinherit them. A person may state they intend to disinherit their family, or alternatively, leave them a small amount but state that they will forfeit even that small amount in the event they contest the will. That was not the case here. You and your siblings could argue that your absence was an omission. 

However, you are not direct heirs (a parent or child); you are collateral descendants. That, plus the fact that your brother’s will appears to be valid — as you don’t mention anything untoward about the will itself — indicates to me that you should accept your brother’s wishes. Feeling aggrieved that you did not inherit his estate is not enough to break his will. 

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