Contesting a Trust: What You Need to Know

There are many situations where as the beneficiary of a trust, you realize that some aspect of your inheritance was tampered with, usually dramatically decreased, or a new beneficiary popped up in the final version of the document. In these situations where family members believe something was incorrect, there are legal options for challenging the trust.

Who can challenge the trust?

Before any trust can be terminated or modified, you have to have proper standing. This is a legal term that simply means only the beneficiary to a trust who can contest the trust in most states. There may be exceptions to this based on where you live which is why it is in your best interest to consider working with a probate attorney when you are contesting a trust. 

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Grounds for contesting a trust

If you want to challenge the trust, there are many reasons you might suspect being behind the dramatic decrease in your inheritance or the sudden appearance of the new beneficiary.

In order to challenge the trust, you have to consider many things.

Unlawful purpose

The United States Uniform Trust Code stipulates that a trust can be considered legally invalid if there is an unlawful purpose behind it or the purpose interferes with public policy. If the latest iteration of a trust spells out something that imposes limits on the freedom to marry or religious freedom, it can be legally contested. Similarly, you can contest a trust if it violates the rules of your state against perpetuities.

Bear in mind that if you are choosing to contest a trust because of an unlawful purpose if the courts settle in your favor that only applies to the section that is considered unlawful, not the entire trust.

So what do you do if you believe there is a problem with the entire trust or the newest trust amendment? In these situations, you have to legally contest a trust based on things like insane delusion, also known as a lack of capacity, or undue influence. 

Fraud or undue influence

Firstly, you might consider whether there is any evidence of undue influence or fraud. Some of the most obvious signs of undue influence include situations where an individual convinces your recently deceased family member to sign a document that they really don’t understand or cases where the trustor has been isolated from their family members who might otherwise know what they want to do with their assets. Even more egregious forms of this include drafting a new trust on behalf of your recently deceased family member without their permission.

Lack of capacity

You can contest a trust if you believe that your deceased family member lacked the mental capacity to make the changes in the most recent document. This is usually associated with situations where an individual has a diagnosed condition like Dementia or Alzheimer’s which is known to cause a delusion or inhibit their ability to make cogent decisions.

Problems with language

There are situations where the language in your trust is so ambiguous that you and other family members are interpreting it differently. If things are unclear you can petition the court to either terminate that part or modify it.

Is it difficult to contest a trust?

It can be difficult to contest a trust because as the person’s poor beneficiary contesting the living trust, you have to prove to the court that you have sufficient evidence that individuals committed fraud, or the person who signed it was not completely cognizant of their actions at the time.  

If you suspect unlawful purposes, you can petition the court to remove the section that is considered unlawful. Again, if this is approved by the court it will only apply to the section that is considered unlawful and not the entire trust.

If you suspect fraud or undue influence, this can be the most difficult way to contest a trust because you have to prove clear and convincing evidence that this took place and in situations where, for example, your trustor was isolated from their family members for the last year of their life, without a clear idea as to what happened during that isolation it can be challenging to find evidence for a lawsuit.

In these situations consider working with an attorney who understands trust law and can help you find the necessary evidence for your case.

If you suspect a lack of capacity,  you can challenge the trust especially if your family member already had a diagnosis of a mental disorder. The courts will evaluate whether or not they were able to understand the nature of their most recent Trust and whether they had previous examples of hallucinations or cognitive dysfunction. With an attorney, you can work to prove that the individual was already suffering from a lack of capacity at the time that the newest trust was executed.

If you suspect ambiguous language, you can also petition the court to either remove the section that is ambiguous or modify it with a declaratory judgment. This declaratory judgment would in effect legally stipulate with the intent was thereby overriding what the actual wording was in the trust. 

For this, it is equally important that you consider working with an attorney who can find family members or friends who would serve as a strong source of evidence for what their wishes were when they drafted the trust. Usually, people who spend a great deal of time with the family member in question and were closest to them would be able to help provide the courts with more clarity as to the ambiguous language.

How to contest a trust fund?

In order to contest fraud in the United States, your actions must be swift. Some trusts have what is referred to as a no-contest clause which, if it exists, means you must have probable cause to legally bring a lawsuit before a judge.

Moreover, in most states, there is a statute of limitations such that you have on average 120 days after the notice of inheritance has been issued to dispute the current trust. 

When you work with an attorney, they will work with you to create a strategy, possibly to file a lawsuit immediately or to send a letter to the other parties requesting additional information before you file a lawsuit.

Depending on the issues you have with the trust fund or the will, your attorney will work with you to locate a strong source of evidence from friends or family member who might have better understood your family members wishes at the time they originally drafted their trust or medical records to prove a mental incapacity prior to the time the document was signed.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it is imperative that if you have issues with a trust, you consider working with an attorney immediately because there is a severe statute of limitations. It is possible to contest a trust but it falls to you to present adequate evidence to back up your grounds.

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Article by James Finsweet

James Finsweet is a Head of legal department in LawBrother Ltd. At Lawrina, James contributes his experience in law practice and shares opinions on law regulations and news.

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