When a person dies, the assets and debts left behind become the deceased's estate. Every state has its own laws that assist estate executors to pay debts and distribute assets to creditors and heirs. In Pennsylvania, if an heir or other interested party believes that the deceased's will is invalid or the estate has been improperly administered, then the party has the right to contest the will, provided that this occurs within a certain period of time.
In the Beginning
A Pennsylvania executor must first present the will for validation to the Pennsylvania Register of Wills. If you want to contest a will, you can file a caveat with the Register of Wills prior to the will's validation, when the caveat's time limit ends; if you're successful, this approach will prevent a court from issuing a decree of probate. However, once the Register of Wills issues a decree of probate, it becomes much more difficult to prove that the will is invalid because the court will assume that the will is legitimate.
Appealing the Register of Wills
Pennsylvania's Orphan's Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas hears will contests, according to LegalZoom.com. Remember that this court will assume the will is already valid, so the burden of proof is on you to show the Register of Wills is wrong. Pennsylvania law states that there is a one-year statute of limitations following the probate decree issuance to file a motion challenging the Register of Wills' decision to issue the decree.
The Executors Fight Back
Executors and heirs have the right to file an Order to Show Cause if you decide to challenge the probate decree in Orphan's Court. The Order to Show Cause reduces the statute of limitations from one year to 90 days, according to LegalZoom. In addition, you may have to pay the fees and costs of the Orphan's Court if you contest a will and lose; if the Court requires a bond, you have 10 days to post it. Pennsylvania law, which does not favor those contesting wills, allows this Order because it lets estates avoid the penalties or fees that it may incur as a result of a delayed probate process.
Filing a Tort Claim
While most Pennsylvania laws favor the executor, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in 2002 that you can sue any will's beneficiary if the beneficiary illegally has interfered with the estate's distribution. There is no statute of limitations on this claim. To qualify, you have to prove that the deceased promised a bequest to you before he died and that the beneficiary interfered with the will-making process to unlawfully deny you your bequest. This is called a tort claim, and it differs from a will contest in that you are asking for punitive damages instead of an inheritance. Keep in mind that although you can file a tort claim "at any time," according to LegalZoom, it's in your best interest to file a tort claim right away.
Lisa Bigelow is an independent writer with prior professional experience in the finance and fitness industries. She also writes a well-regarded political commentary column published in Fairfield, New Haven and Westchester counties in the New York City metro area.