February 2, 2024

No-Contest Clause

One method used to deter litigation amongst trust beneficiaries is to insert a no-contest clause in the trust. A no-contest clause provides that a beneficiary will forfeit their inheritance if they challenge the trust's validity and lose. Probate Code §21310(b). Essentially then, a beneficiary must balance the risk of challenging the trust’s validity, an uncertainty, against the assurance of an inheritance, a certainty. Of note, undue influence is probably the most common reason to challenge a trust's validity.

Occasionally I read trusts which state that a beneficiary will forfeit their inheritance, $1, if they contest the trust’s validity. Since $1 will hardly dissuade a litigant, the no-contest clause is rendered effectively useless. Rather the better approach is to increase the size of the inheritance, e.g. $75,000, whereby the litigant will have to seriously ponder the possibility of forfeiting a sizable sum of money should they contest the trust’s validity and lose.

Since January 1, 2010, California has greatly curtailed the impact of no-contest clauses. Now a contestant can challenge a trust’s validity and lose, but still receive their inheritance provided the contestant had “probable cause” when they filed their contest. Probable cause “exists if, at the time of filing a contest, the facts known to the contestant would cause a reasonable person to believe that there is a reasonable likelihood that the requested relief will be granted after an opportunity for further investigation or discovery.” Probate Code §21311(b). A recent unpublished appellate opinion provides an example of this.

In the trial court, the contestant (Randi) lost her contest. The respondent (Fred) appealed the trial court’s decision that the contest had been filed with probable cause. If filed without probable cause, Randi would be disinherited per the trust’s no-contest clause.

“Taken together, the evidence proffered by Randi in her declaration and the declarations from others would cause a reasonable person to believe there was a reasonable likelihood Randi would prevail on the undue influence claim. Marcia was unwell and seemed feeble at the time. Fred had taken her into his home and the evidence supports an inference that he isolated her from her other family and friends. Marcia signed trust documents prepared by an attorney she previously stated she did not want to work with further, and aspects of the Trust seemed inconsistent with Marcia's previously stated practices or desires. Additionally, though Fred did not "unduly" profit from the Trust in the sense that his share of the estate exceeded that of Randi and Julie, a reasonable person could nonetheless consider his receipt of an equal portion an undue benefit given his limited presence in Marcia's life prior to the months leading up to her death. So, too, could one consider his appointment as trustee, a position that gave him both authority and compensation, as an undue benefit under the circumstances."

This part of the opinion was particularly elucidating

“The court also found the evidence pointed to Fred having a virtually non-existent role in Marcia's life until shortly before she passed, and thus, it was not unreasonable to infer that he feared he might be disinherited or only left a small portion of the estate, with a greater portion going to "his apparent nemesis," Randi, who spent a substantial time with Marcia during her lifetime.”

Estate of Sherman, Los Angeles County Superior Court case no. 19STPB10622