If you are a beneficiary of an estate or trust, based on a will that contains a “no contest clause,” you are restricted from challenging certain provisions of that will. However, in California, that does not mean you are not allowed to question the actions of the trustee or executor of a will about how they are managing the estate for which they are a fiduciary.
As with any area of the legal system, the California Probate Code is a long and complicated document with hundreds of provisions, including Division 11, Part 3, Sections 21310-21315: No Contest Clause. Even though limitations exists as to the nature of enforceable “no contest” clauses, a challenger to the provisions of a will that contains such a clause runs the risk of being penalized for filing a pleading in any court, if the “no contest” provision in an otherwise valid instrument is enforced. In other words, you, as a beneficiary, could be totally excluded from a will if you dispute it in court and lose the case.
The history of “no contest” clauses in California includes legal challenges to the wills of William Randolph Hearst and Michael Jackson, which are examples of opposite decisions by the courts: one ruling against a proposed challenge by three of Hearst’s grandchildren to the actions of the Trustees of Hearst’s estate and another ruling in support of Kathleen Jackson’s proposed challenge of the designated Executor of her son’s estate.
California, unlike most other states, allows beneficiaries to obtain a preliminary legal ruling about whether or not their proposed challenge to the execution of a will would constitute a “contest,” which, if lost, would cause the challenger to lose all claims to the deceased’s estate. The three Hearst heirs, who lost their preliminary challenge, stopped pursuing legal action against the Trustees of the estate – out of fear of losing their inheritance completely, if they lost the “contest” in the potential next round in court.
A “no contest clause” expresses and enables a person’s desire to prevent contentious heirs from challenging a will in probate court, which is why this type of clause is also known as an “in terrorem” clause – based on the Latin phrase for “in fear,” which is exactly how the Hearst grandkids felt when they learned of the California Court of Appeal’s disposition against their potential lawsuit. Though she did not eventually become Executor of her son’s estate, Kathleen Jackson did not experience the fear of losing her inheritance (40% of the estate!), because her challenge was declared to not be a “contest.”
If you are a beneficiary of an estate or trust that is based on a will with a “no contest clause,” and you have questions about how how that estate or trust is being managed by the Executor or Trustee, Connie Yi, an experienced attorney who specializes in California Probate Law can provide qualified answers and expert legal guidance. The Law Offices of Connie Yi, P.C. can help you sort through all of the complicated details of your situation and determine the least-risky and most-advantageous course of action. Contact us if you would like a free consultation.