Contesting a Trust: What You Need to Know

There are many situations when the beneficiary of a trust may realize that some aspect of his or her inheritance has been tampered with, usually by being dramatically decreased or by the sudden appearance of a new beneficiary in the final version of the document. When the intended beneficiaries or family members believe that something is incorrect or missing in a trust, there may be legal options for challenging the trust.

Who Can Challenge the Trust?

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

What Does It Take to Contest a Trust?

To contest the legal trust instrument, a person should have, first of all, legal standing or legal grounds. The following people would have legal standing to contest a trust:

  • Trust beneficiary;
  • Heirs of the trust grantor; or
  • A successor trustee.

However, even if a person has legal standing to contest a trust, the ability to do so is not guaranteed. In addition to legal standing, a person must have reasonable grounds, such as the following:

  • The reason behind creating a trust was based on coercion or undue influence from intended trust beneficiaries;
  • The trust grantor had a mental illness or other serious reason for incompetence while making the trust document;
  • The trust document was copied fraudulently by interested parties; or
  • Trust assets were mismanaged according to the estate plan.​​

Can You Contest a Trust in Its Entirety?

You can always contest an entire trust if there is a reliable reason to do so, such as a compromised cognitive state during trust execution or the mismanagement of trust assets. In most instances, contesting a trust in its entirety is the only proper way of action. Another option is to contest a trust amendment for effective trust disputes.

Grounds for Contesting a Trust

There are many possible reasons for a dramatic decrease in a person’s inheritance or the sudden appearance of a new beneficiary. If you want to challenge the trust agreement, however, and win your trust contest, you will have to consider the following grounds:

  • Unlawful purpose;
  • Fraud or undue influence;
  • Lack of capacity; and
  • Problems with language.

Unlawful purpose

The United States Uniform Trust Code stipulates that an existing 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 imposes limits on the freedom to marry or religious freedom, it can be legally contested. Similarly, a person can contest a trust if it violates the rules of his or her state against perpetuities.

Bear in mind that if you are choosing to contest a trust because of an unlawful purpose, a judgment in your favor will only apply to the section that is considered unlawful, not the entire trust. If you believe that the problem is with the entire trust or the newest trust amendment, you will have to legally contest the trust based on other grounds, such as a lack of capacity or undue influence. 

Fraud or undue influence

First, 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 had convinced the recently deceased family member to sign a document that he or she really didn’t understand or where the trustor had been isolated from family members who might otherwise have known what he or she wanted with regard to certain assets. Even more egregious forms of fraud include drafting a new trust on behalf of the recently deceased family member without his or her permission.

Lack of capacity

People can make trust contests if they believe that a deceased family member lacked the mental capacity to make any changes that are included in the most recent document. This usually occurs when an individual has a diagnosed condition like Dementia or Alzheimer’s that is known to cause delusion or inhibit the person’s ability to make cognizant decisions.

Problems with language

Sometimes, the language in a trust can be so ambiguous that different family members interpret it differently. If the language of the trust is unclear, interested parties can petition the court to either terminate that part or modify it. Unclear language can become reasonable grounds for a trust contest.

Contesting Non-Standard Trusts

There are some cases when a person may wonder about the legitimate value of trust. The following are some of the most common examples of non-standard trusts and what is recommended to do to win a trust contest.

Can a trust be contested if it is unsigned?

One of the most common non-standard cases is when trust is unsigned. In this case, interested parties should not need to worry since the legal document is considered invalid by default. However, it may still be helpful to seek professional advice since an unsigned trust serves as proof of the settlor’s dispositive intent.

Can an irrevocable trust be contested?

Although the contents of irrevocable trusts cannot be revoked, interested parties can always contest them on the same grounds as standard trusts. If there are reasonable grounds, an irrevocable trust can be nullified.

Can you contest a trust amendment?

An interested party can contest a trust amendment without contesting the entire trust that was already executed. Even if the decedent had been mentally competent while executing the trust, an amendment could have been executed at a time when he or she lacked mental competence. Every case needs to be reviewed separately.

Can a Trust Be Contested if the Instrument Is Handwritten?

Handwritten signed trusts can be legitimate. Generally speaking, as long as a trust is in writing, even handwriting, it can be valid. However, the same grounds for contesting a trust may exist for a handwritten trust as for a typed document.

Can a Trust Be Contested if It Has a No-Contest Clause?

Having a no-contest clause does not mean that a trust cannot be contested if there are reasonable grounds to do so. A no-contest clause means that there are risks associated with contesting the trust, so an interested party may want to consider professional legal advice from an estate litigation attorney who can help avoid these risks. 

Is It Difficult to Contest a Trust?

Contesting a trust can be difficult because the person’s beneficiary must prove to the court that he or she has sufficient evidence that other individuals committed fraud or that the person who signed the document was not completely cognizant at the time.  

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

If you suspect fraud or undue influence, you must prove with clear and convincing evidence what took place. Unfortunately, in situations where, for example, the trustor was isolated from family members toward the end of his or her life, it can be challenging to find evidence for a lawsuit without having a clear idea as to what happened during that isolation. In these situations, consider working with an attorney who understands trust law and can help find the necessary evidence to support the case.

You can challenge the trust if you suspect a lack of capacity, especially if the family member already had a diagnosis of a mental disorder. A court will evaluate whether or not the decedent had been able to understand the nature of the most recent trust, including whether he or she had previous examples of hallucinations or cognitive dysfunction. An attorney can help to prove that the individual was already suffering from a lack of capacity at the time the newest trust was executed.

If you suspect ambiguous language, you can 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 what the intent was, thereby overriding what the actual wording was in the trust. It is important to consider working with an attorney who can find family members or friends who would serve as strong evidence for what the loved one’s wishes were when he or she originally drafted the trust. Usually, people who spend a great deal of time with the family member in question and were closest would be able to help provide more clarity as to the ambiguous language.

How to Contest a Trust Fund

In order to contest fraud in the United States, you must be swift. Some trusts have what is referred to as a no-contest clause that, if it exists, means probable cause must exist for someone to legally bring a lawsuit before a judge. Moreover, in most states, there is a statute of limitations that allows an average 120 days after the notice of inheritance has been issued to dispute the current trust. 

An attorney will work with his or her client to create a strategy that may involve filing a lawsuit immediately or sending a letter to the other parties requesting additional information before filing a lawsuit.

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Depending on the issues with trust funds or wills, an attorney will work to locate strong evidence from either friend and family members who might have better understood the deceased family member’s wishes when the trust was originally drafted or medical records that prove mental incapacity prior to the time the document was signed.

How Long Does a Person Have to Contest a Trust?

The time allowed depends on state law. It might be 120 days from the date of the trust creator’s death or mental illness or even several years. Review your state’s probate laws to help you determine the period. You can also consult an attorney in your state for professional advice.

How Much Does It Cost to Contest a Trust?

The costs for contesting a trust depend on the complexity of the case. The more time needed to resolve a challenge in probate court, the higher the costs will be. In general, there will be court filing fees and estate planning attorney’s fees, which vary across states. 

Final Thoughts

Overall, if you have issues with a trust, consider working with an attorney who will be aware of the statute of limitations for your unique situation. Remember that, to contest a trust, you will need to present adequate evidence depending on your grounds for filing. So, consider working with an experienced attorney.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens after you win a trust contest?

If you win a trust contest, the entire trust or its parts that are being contested become invalidated. A valid older version of the trust will be used instead as the instrument during administration. 

What is the most important rule for contesting a trust?

The most important rule for contesting a trust is to meet certain grounds for trust contests. You need to have a financial stake in the outcome of the contest in order to bring a contest. If you can prove any of the legal grounds for contesting a trust, the legal document will likely be deemed invalid.

Do I need a lawyer while dealing with a trust contest? 

Seeking legal advice is recommended, especially if you are dealing with a non-standard trust. Developing an attorney client relationship can help significantly in many of these cases. A lawyer can inspect the document and discuss your concerns.


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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