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Where There's a Will …

There's a way to contest it. But the cost can be high, and not just in money

Consider the cost

When considering whether it's worth the effort to contest, take a look at the dollars involved. Maybe you're more interested in proving wrongdoing than in padding your own bank account, but it's not worth pursuing a case if you'll lose money even if you win.

"All unjust situations should be pursued, but if all you're going to get is the balance of a checking account worth $2,000, and it costs tens of thousands of dollars to bring the case, the cost-benefit analysis doesn't really justify it," says Joanne Fanizza, an elder-law attorney in Farmingdale, N.Y., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

If elder abuse is suspected, contesters may be able to pursue criminal charges against the offender. That avenue may make more sense than pursuing a civil case in which the cost is prohibitive, Fanizza says.

In addition to financial cost, advisers say cost to personal relationships must be considered. While feeling slighted by a late relative — and missing out on a potentially large inheritance — can be painful, the emotional strain of going to court can be just as tough.

"Contesting a will can permanently affect relationships with the adversary," says David Okrent, an estate attorney in Dix Hills, N.Y. People who take on a sibling or parent in court may prevail, "but they may be left without their sibling or parent ever speaking to them again."

The final thing to consider is that successful will contests are few and far between. Fanizza says she's had only a handful of them in her career, and all were settled out of court.

In the end, Paul Young joined the ranks of dissatisfied heirs who decide to let it go. He did not contest his mother's will.

Also of interest: Documents you can't live without. >>

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance journalist who writes regularly about personal finance and aging issues.

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