If you think that your loved one’s wishes are not reflected in the terms of their trust document or the way it is being distributed, you may have the right to challenge the trust in court. However, only certain individuals can fight a trust and even then only on specific grounds. Here we’ll take a look at what you can do to protect your loved one’s estate and ensure that their final wishes for their legacy are correctly carried out.
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Do I Have To Go to Court To Contest a Trust?
Yes, to contest any aspect of a trust, you’ll most likely need to file suit in court. That does not mean that you cannot settle the case before or after you file. However, to formally challenge any part of the trust, you will need to start a lawsuit. This is a point of confusion for many confused and frustrated beneficiaries, but let us pull no punches here. If you don’t file suit in court by whatever deadline applies to your claim, you claim, in almost all instances, will be lost forever.
To pursue your claims you need to have legal standing to challenge a trust in court, meaning simply that you need to have a financial stake in the outcome of the trust. This does not necessarily mean you have to be listed as a beneficiary of the trust. Instead, if you are an heir or can show that you were listed on a previous version of the trust, then you should have standing to file a suit.
There are various ways to show that you have a financial stake in a trust or its distributions. First, you can be a beneficiary — someone who receives a distribution from the trust assets. You can be explicitly named or fall into a group of defined beneficiaries (such as “all of my grandchildren”).
But legal standing is murkier if you are not named as a beneficiary. One way to show a financial interest is to prove you would typically inherit some of your loved one’s assets, for instance, because you are their child. Another method is showing you were a beneficiary in a prior trust (or a last will and testament) and were left out of the current document.
Finally, you can argue in court that your loved one intended to leave an inheritance, but for some reason their trust does not list you as a beneficiary (but these claims are not really trust contests as much as they are promisorry estoppel claims, which are beyond this discussion).
Do Most Trust Disputes Go to Court?
Because you must file a formal lawsuit to dispute a trust, contests normally start in court. However, once you have started a case, the trustee, their attorneys, and your trust and estate litigation lawyer can always negotiate a resolution, either informally or through a formal settlement process like a settlement conference or mediation. And sometimes it is possible to resolve a case even prior to filing a lawsuit. Each case rises and falls on its own set of facts, and if you have a trust dispute you would be well-advised to consult an experienced trust litigation attorney who can advise you.
How Do You Challenge a Trust?
Challenging a trust requires you to have legal standing and valid grounds to file a petition in court. A successful challenge will invalidate provisions or entire documents and leave the estate in the position that you believe you loved one intended.
There are various grounds on which you can legally challenge a trust. These include:
- Undue Influence
- Lack of Capacity
Often for many of these claims, issues surrounding your loved one’s state of mind when they created the trust or amendment you are challenging will need to be reviewed. Examining capacity can be a complicated legal inquiry that involves medical records and other evidence, and digging into these issues often can be emotional trying for clients and their families.
Before you decide to contest a trust or a trust amendment, you should talk to a knowledgeable trust litigation attorney. They can help explain the law and what you need to prove in order to succeed. A trust lawyer can also guide you and other family members through the process of gathering documents and other evidence that will be used during the legal proceedings, as well as explain the process, it’s cost, and potential outcomes, so you know not only what you can expect, but when, and for how much.
Have questions? We’re happy to discuss.
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The Trustee’s Guide to Trust Distributions
The Trustee’s Guide to Avoiding Trustee Removal
The Guide to Breach of Fiduciary Duty and Abuse
About RMO, LLP
RMO LLP serves clients in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Orange County, San Diego, Kansas City, Miami, and communities throughout California, Florida, Missouri, and Kansas. Our founder, Scott E. Rahn, has been named “Top 100 – Trust and Estate Litigation” by SuperLawyers, Trusts and Estates Litigator of the Year, and Best Lawyers in America for Litigation – Trusts and Estates. For a free consultation, call (424) 320-9444 or visit: https://rmolawyers.com.