How to Successfully Enforce Your Rights as a Primary or Contingent Beneficiary

A trustee or executor has informed you that you’ve been named as a beneficiary of a decedent’s trust or estate, respectively. What’s next? How do you make sure you receive the inheritance to which you’re entitled? Regardless of whether you are a primary beneficiary or a contingent beneficiary, Keystone’s beneficiary representation lawyers can help you be proactive by counseling you about your rights, and, if needed, they can help you enforce them.

  • What if the terms of a will are ambiguous? As a beneficiary, how can you be sure the executor will accurately interpret the will and make distributions accordingly?
  • What if you were previously named as a beneficiary of a loved one’s trust, but in the last few days or months of your loved one’s life, they mysteriously amended their trust to remove you as a beneficiary. Do you have standing as a former beneficiary to contest the trust?
  • What if the primary beneficiary of a deceased loved one’s retirement account has died? As the contingent beneficiary of this account, do you have the right to claim what’s remaining of this asset?
  • What if a loved one changed their estate plan before dying to name you as the primary beneficiary of their estate since you supported them through their illness or old age? How can you defend your right to the inheritance you were left?
  • What if you are content with the inheritance you were left through a loved one’s will, but the other beneficiaries are fighting among themselves for increased shares of the estate? Is it necessary for you to involve yourself in the estate dispute?

Keystone’s beneficiary lawyers can serve as a go-to resource for beneficiaries in any dispute that may arise. Regardless of the kind of beneficiary you are, our beneficiary representation lawyers can provide counseling, bring claims on your behalf or defend claims brought against you. Keystone has a proven track record of securing favorable resolutions to beneficiary disputes.

Chapters

What Is a Beneficiary?

If you’ve been named as a beneficiary of a decedent’s estate or trust, you probably have some questions, such as: What is a beneficiary? How long before I am provided my inheritance? Can I secure a copy of the will or trust document?

It’s good you are asking these questions because that means you are not sitting idly by as trust or estate administration takes place; you are involved to ensure that you receive the inheritance to which you’re entitled.

Beneficiary Definition

A beneficiary is a person or entity who has been designated by either the decedent (if they have an estate plan in place) or the court (if the decedent died without an estate plan) to receive a decedent’s assets following their death.

“Beneficiary” is a broadly defined term; it can refer to someone who is supposed to inherit from an estate or trust as much as it can refer to the recipient of a life insurance policy. In the following section, you will learn about the most common kinds of beneficiaries.

Types of Beneficiaries

If you are familiar with estate planning, when you think “beneficiary,” it’s likely that trust and estate beneficiaries come to mind. The reality, however, is that there are many types of beneficiaries. The rights you have as a beneficiary will largely depend on the type of beneficiary you are.

Estate and Trust Beneficiaries

Of the various kinds of beneficiaries, trust and estate beneficiaries are the most well-known.

An estate beneficiary is anyone who stands to inherit from a decedent’s estate administration.

Estate Beneficiaries

  • Can be designated by the decedent through a valid will or by the court through intestate succession procedures if no valid will exists
  • Are provided a distribution from the decedent’s estate by an executor (if there is a will) or an administrator (if there is not a will or if someone other than a named executor is appointed as personal representative of the estate) 
  • Have standing to bring a will contest if it’s suspected that the entire will or certain portions of it are invalid

A trust beneficiary is anyone who stands to inherit from a decedent’s trust administration.

Trust Beneficiaries

  • Are designated by the creator of the trust (aka the grantor, settlor or trustor) through a valid trust instrument or trust amendment
  • Are provided distributions from the trust by a trustee
  • Have standing to bring a trust contest if it’s suspected that the entire trust or certain portions of it are invalid

Trust and estate beneficiaries frequently find themselves amid trust and/or estate disputes following the death of a loved one. These disputes can be related to everything from the terms of the will or trust instrument to suspected financial abuse of the decedent, and can involve other beneficiaries, third parties (such as creditors or non-beneficiary contestants of a will or trust), trustees or executors/administrators.

If you find yourself – either directly or indirectly – embroiled in an estate or trust dispute, it is crucial you speak with a beneficiary representation lawyer as soon as possible about your case.

The consequences can be dire for beneficiaries who fail to actively participate in litigation. We discuss the dangers of being a bystander or freeloader beneficiary in a later section.

Primary and Contingent Beneficiaries

Beneficiaries generally fall under one of two categories: primary beneficiaries (aka vested beneficiaries) or contingent beneficiaries (aka secondary beneficiaries). The type of beneficiary you are will determine your rights as well as your ability to enforce them.

A primary beneficiary can be described as having a present interest in an estate or trust (i.e., they can receive their distributions as soon as administration is complete).

Primary Beneficiaries

  • Are generally guaranteed a distribution from the estate or trust unless their interest is successfully contested by a party with standing (i.e., a party that has financial stake in the outcome of the case)
  • Have rights (e.g., requesting accountings) not afforded to contingent beneficiaries unless the will or trust instrument states otherwise

A contingent beneficiary can be described as having a potential future interest in an estate or trust.

Contingent Beneficiaries

  • Must meet certain conditions (e.g., surviving a primary beneficiary or reaching a particular age) to receive their distribution
  • Are not guaranteed a distribution from the estate or trust
  • Have some rights (e.g., bringing a will or trust contest, filing a claim on behalf of the estate or trust, petitioning the court to have an executor/administrator or trustee removed), but fewer than those of a primary beneficiary

Conflicts are not uncommon among primary and contingent beneficiaries, especially if a contingent beneficiary believes the primary beneficiary, executor/administrator or trustee is mismanaging or squandering the decedent’s assets that are supposed to transfer to them if and when certain conditions are met and if any portion of the assets remain. 

Contingent beneficiaries may have a right to protect their potential future interest in an estate or trust, just as primary beneficiaries have to claim and defend their present interest in an estate or trust. A beneficiary lawyer can represent a primary beneficiary or contingent beneficiary in a dispute.

Beneficiary Designations

A beneficiary designation refers to the person or persons the decedent named, usually through a financial document, as the recipient of a specific asset upon their death. Beneficiary designations generally enable assets to automatically pass to the designated beneficiary once the owner of the asset dies without the asset needing to be administered in a formal probate proceeding. 

Beneficiary designations tend to fall under one of two categories: payable-on-death designations or transfer-on-death designations

A payable-on-death designation (POD) permits the named beneficiary on an decedent’s account to obtain ownership of the assets in the account with a valid form of identification and a certified copy of the account holder’s death certificate. The following are examples of common assets that may have PODs.

  • Personal checking account
  • Personal savings account
  • Certificate of deposit
  • Life insurance policy
  • Annuity

A transfer-on-death designation (TOD) transfers ownership of an asset to a beneficiary with a valid form of identification and certified copy of the asset owner’s death certificate. The following are examples of assets that may contain TODs.

  • Retirement accounts (e.g., IRAs)
  • Investment accounts (e.g., standard brokerage accounts)
  • Education accounts (e.g., 529 savings plan)
  • Investment accounts for minors (e.g., custodial brokerage account)
  • Automobiles
  • Real estate*

*Whether a piece of real estate can have a TOD will depend on state laws. A new deed may be required for real estate with a TOD.

Beneficiary designations have their benefits (e.g., they bypass probate, allowing beneficiaries immediate access to assets), but they cannot be used for all kinds of assets, nor do they provide the same level of flexibility to asset owners wishing to impose certain conditions on a beneficiary’s receipt of the property, which is something they can do through a will or trust. 

Problems can arise when an asset, such as a bank account, is set to be disposed of through a will or trust but also has a beneficiary designation. Beneficiary designations will generally take precedence unless the designation is successfully challenged in court by an interested party. If you are a named beneficiary involved in such a dispute, it is best to hire a beneficiary representation lawyer who can help protect your interest in the asset at hand.

Beneficiary Rights

If you’ve been named the beneficiary of a trust or estate, your instinct may be to focus on grieving the loss of your loved one, leaving administration up to the trustee or executor/administrator. That, however, wouldn’t be a smart move. Being a beneficiary is more complicated than it seems and learning about your rights is a crucial first step. Without understanding them, you will not know if they have been violated, and what’s worse you could be robbed of your rightful inheritance.

While there are certain nuanced differences between the rights of estate beneficiaries and those of trust beneficiaries their rights are very similar for the most part. We review these rights in the following bulleted list.

  • The right to full and complete copies of the will or trust instrument
  • The right to information about the estate or trust and its administration
  • The right to request accountings from executors/administrators or trustees
  • The right to petition the court to suspend or remove an executor/administrator or trustee and surcharge them if it’s suspected that they engaged in misconduct
  • The right to fair and impartial treatment from the executor/administrator or trustee
  • The right to receive a distribution according to the terms of the will or trust
  • The right to a timely distribution

How to Enforce Your Rights as a Beneficiary

Knowing your rights as a beneficiary is the only surefire way to ensure you receive the distribution you’re entitled to from a decedent’s estate or trust. 

It is important for beneficiaries to play an active role in administration by doing things like reviewing the accountings provided by the executor/administrator or trustee and demanding that they provide them if they haven’t already. It may also be necessary to periodically check in on the executor/administrator or trustee to ensure they are fulfilling their duties.

If you need clarification about your rights as a beneficiary or believe your rights have been violated by the executor/administrator or trustee, by the will or trust instrument itself, or by another beneficiary or disinherited heir claiming a share of your inheritance, it is important to seek counsel from a beneficiary lawyer as soon as possible.

What Happens If a Loved One Dies Without a Will?

If a decedent dies without having executed a valid will (i.e., they die “intestate”), the state will essentially make a will for them. This process is called “intestate succession,” and it determines which of the decedent’s heirs stand to inherit the decedent’s assets based on their marital, blood and adoptive ties to the decedent.

Who qualifies as an heir will depend on the state in which the decedent died, the state in which they had physical property when they died or a combination of both. For the most part, any of the decedent’s assets that do not have a designated beneficiary or are not owned by a trust will be included as part of the decedent’s estate and be subject to probate. The person appointed by the court to handle probate administration (usually a close family member of the decedent) is called the administrator.

Under California law, when a decedent’s property passes via intestate succession, it generally passes in the following order:

  • Surviving spouse (100% of the community property and either 50% or 33% of the separate property)
  • Surviving children
  • Surviving grandchildren (only if the decedent’s child predeceased the decedent)
  • Surviving parents
  • Surviving siblings
  • Surviving nieces/nephews

If the decedent does not have any surviving heirs or kin, their property will pass to the state.

Can Intestate Succession Be Contested?

Only under rare circumstances will the court permit an heir to challenge intestate succession standards by arguing that an heir entitled to receive property should be disinherited. For example, if an interested party proves to the court that an elder decedent was abused by an heir, the court may elect to disinherit the heir based on applicable statutes in the probate code. In most other instances, though, the court will remain neutral and pass on a decedent’s property according to the state’s intestate succession statutes. 

If you believe that an heir who stands to inherit via intestate succession engaged in misconduct against the decedent, or you believe that you are entitled to a larger share of the decedent’s property than the court designated for you, it is recommended that you call a beneficiary lawyer to learn whether your case is sufficiently compelling to bring to court.

Who Can Be Named as Beneficiaries?

There are generally very few restrictions on who can be named as a beneficiary in a will or trust, or on assets with beneficiary designations, such as bank accounts and life insurance policies. 

When naming beneficiaries, most people choose someone falling under one of the below categories or a combination of them:

Spouses

Because of community property laws, which state that all the property acquired during a marriage is shared, spouses are generally entitled to half of the couple’s assets acquired during marriage, regardless of whether or not the decedent allocated half of the assets to the spouse through a their will or trust; the decedent is free to dispose of their half of the assets in any way they please. Read more about spousal rights after death.

Children

In estate planning, “children” refers to any child born to the decedent (even if during a prior marriage) or any child legally adopted by the decedent. The term is not generally meant to include stepchildren, unless, of course, the stepchildren had been legally adopted by the decedent. It is also possible for future children to be named as beneficiaries.

Minors

If a minor is named as a beneficiary, they generally will not be able to access their inheritance until they turn 18. Most people who are leaving assets to a minor create a trust in the minor’s name and designate a responsible person as the trustee. The trustee will manage the trust until the minor comes of legal age, at which point, ownership of the assets held within the trust will be transferred to the former minor.

Charities or Organizations

It is not required for inheritances to be left to people; entities such as charitable organizations and businesses can be named as beneficiaries. It is important to be specific when naming charities or other organizations as beneficiaries.

If you have been named as a beneficiary and someone is challenging your entitlement to the inheritance you were left, it is vital you be proactive and hire a beneficiary representation lawyer to help defend your rights. 

It’s also possible that you are on the opposite end of the spectrum and wish to challenge someone else’s right to the inheritance they were left because of suspected elder abuse of the decedent or another act of misconduct. Either way, a beneficiary lawyer can help.

Who Are “Disqualified Persons”?

There are certain persons who are presumptively disqualified from being named as beneficiaries because it is assumed that they used their position of trust and confidence to commit an act of misconduct (e.g., undue influence, fraud, menace or duress) against the decedent in order to be left an inheritance. 

Examples of “disqualified persons” include:

  • Drafters of wills and trusts
  • Fiduciaries (e.g., powers of attorney)
  • Care custodians

There are, of course, exceptions to the “disqualified persons” rule. For example, if one of the aforementioned categories of persons is related to the decedent within the fifth degree, the gift will not be considered invalid. Gifts of $3,000 or less are also permitted, regardless of who the beneficiary is.

Whether you are a so-called disqualified person fighting to keep the inheritance you were left or you are a beneficiary seeking to invalidate the gift a decedent left a disqualified person, an attorney for beneficiaries can help.

Types of Beneficiary Disputes

Beneficiary disputes, also referred to as inheritance disputes, can arise in a variety of contexts, from family members of decedents trying to invalidate a will or trust because of suspected elder abuse of the decedent to estate or trust beneficiaries trying to remove or surcharge the executor or trustee, respectively, because of their failure to competently fulfill their duties. 

If you are the beneficiary of a will or trust, or another type of asset (e.g., a life insurance policy), and a dispute forms in relation to it, it is crucial you consult with a beneficiary lawyer, who can help protect your interest in the estate,  or trust, or asset that is being disputed.

Will and Trust Contests

If something doesn’t seem right about a decedent’s will or trust (e.g., the will leaves a large portion of the estate to a new spouse instead of the decedent’s children), certain interested parties may bring what is called a trust or will contest to try and have certain parts of the will or trust, or the entire document, invalidated.

Will and trust contests can be complex, so it is necessary to involve a beneficiary lawyer if you wish to bring a will or trust contest or defend one.

Examples of scenarios in which a will or trust contest may be warranted include:

  • The decedent altered their will right before dying to disinherit or significantly reduce the share of their natural heirs (e.g., a spouse or children).
  • The decedent left a large portion of their trust or estate to their caretaker.
  • The decedent lacked competence at the time they executed their will or trust.
  • The decedent was unduly influenced to alter their will or trust.

The aforementioned scenarios are just a few examples of reasons why a beneficiary may choose to bring a will or trust contest. If your claim falls outside these examples, it does not mean that your claim is invalid. A beneficiary lawyer can provide guidance as to whether or not bringing a will or trust contest would be in your best interest.

Who has standing to contest a will or trust?

Anyone with financial stake in a decedent’s estate or trust (i.e., beneficiaries and heirs), has standing to bring a contest. The court is rigid in its rules about standing in order to prevent invalid claims from being brought. Beneficiaries are also entitled to defend against contests if someone – whether it be a disinherited heir, another beneficiary or an executor or trustee – is bringing what they feel to be an invalid claim that impairs their  interest. 

Executors and trustees, just like beneficiaries, are entitled to participate in a will or trust contest if they believe the contest could potentially derail a decedent’s estate plan. They may also be required to defend against a will or trust contest under certain circumstances. 

A beneficiary lawyer can assist with determining the best route of action for beneficiaries and heirs in will and trust contests.

What are some of the grounds for bringing a will or trust contest?

Beneficiaries and heirs cannot contest a will or trust simply because they don’t like its terms; a valid reason must exist for voiding all or certain portions of a decedent’s estate plan.

Some of the accepted grounds for bringing a will or trust contest include:

Undue Influence

Extreme persuasion may have been used on the decedent to convince them to drastically alter their will or trust.

Lack of Capacity

The decedent may have lacked the mental competence to draft and execute a will or trust.

Elder Abuse

Physical, psychological or financial abuse may have been inflicted on the decedent to coerce them into drastically altering their will or trust.

Fraud

The decedent may have been deceived into drastically altering their will or trust.

Forgery

A decedent’s will or trust document may have been fraudulently signed by someone other than the decedent.

Lack of Due Execution

Protocols may not have been properly followed when a will or trust was executed.

If you are a beneficiary or heir who believes any part of a decedent’s estate plan was a product of one of the aforementioned grounds, it is crucial you get in touch with a beneficiary lawyer as soon as possible to determine whether it would be worth your while to bring a will or trust contest. A will or trust contest must be brought swiftly following a decedent’s death, because after a will or trust enters the administration stage, it will no longer be possible to bring a contest. 

It is equally as important for beneficiaries who have been accused of any of the aforementioned grounds to seek representation from a beneficiary lawyer to protect their interest in the estate or trust. If a will or trust contest is brought with the intention of removing a beneficiary, and it is proven that the beneficiary did in fact engage in misconduct to have the decedent drastically alter their estate plan, the beneficiary not only may lose their inheritance but they may also be responsible for covering the plaintiff’s attorney fees and costs as well. 

Is it possible to contest a will or trust with a no-contest clause?

While a no-contest clause in a will or trust can seem scary in that it could potentially disqualify beneficiaries who are bringing a contest from receiving their inheritances, it should not necessarily stop them from challenging a will or trust if they believe they have valid grounds for doing so (e.g., suspected elder abuse or undue influence).

For those who are already not receiving anything under an existing will or trust (e.g., disinherited heirs), contesting a will or trust with a no-contest clause comes with virtually no risks because there is nothing to lose. No-contest clauses only deter beneficiaries who are left an inheritance in the will or trust, or beneficiaries or trustees who defend an invalid trust amendment without probable cause.  

Even where a no-contest clause would apply to deter a beneficiary, they are disfavored by courts and are difficult to enforce. Nevertheless, beneficiaries seeking to contest a will or trust with a no-contest clause should consult with a beneficiary representation lawyer before doing so to assess the risk.

What if a beneficiary chooses not to participate in a will or trust contest?

Perhaps you are discontent with your share of a decedent’s estate or trust, but other beneficiaries have already brought a contest to try to invalidate the will or trust document. Your instinct may be to sit out the dispute and allow the other beneficiaries to fight the battle for you. However, by failing to participate, you could lose your seat at the negotiating table, which is not something you want.

By being a “freeloader beneficiary” or “bystander beneficiary”, as beneficiaries who choose not to participate in trust and estate disputes are called, you risk having your share of the estate or trust reduced, perhaps even to nothing. In the short run, it may save you time, energy and money not to participate in the dispute, but in the long run, you could end up losing more than you saved.

If you are a beneficiary who is uncertain about whether or not to participate in will or trust contest, you should consult with a beneficiary lawyer, who can further clarify for you what the risks of not participating in the dispute are. In certain circumstances, it may not be necessary for you to involve yourself in a dispute, but it is always best to speak with a beneficiary lawyer before making such a decision.


Disputes with Other Beneficiaries Over Will or Trust Terms

With the emergence of estate planning software and online will and trust preparation companies, many people are taking a do-it-yourself approach to creating wills and trusts. While this approach may be less costly and time-consuming than working with an estate planner, it has some significant downsides, namely the increased likelihood of creating a will or trust with ambiguities.

Consider the following examples:

 

  • A decedent had two sons, but the will reads: “My home should go to my son.”
  • A decedent had two nieces named Catherine, but the trust reads: “My car should go to my niece, Catherine.”
  • One part of a will states that the decedent’s IRA account should pass to their brother, but another part of the will states that it should pass to their children.
  • A decedent made a typographical error in their trust that reads: “I bequeath the sum of ten dollars ($10,000) to my sister.”
  • A decedent left a certain piece of property they owned to a child, but the address provided for the property is incorrect.

Not only can ambiguous language cause your final wishes to be derailed if you are a testator or grantor, but it can also cause disputes among beneficiaries. When these kinds of disputes occur, an attorney for beneficiaries can help you devise a strategy for resolving the ambiguity.


Disputes with Trustees or Executors / Administrators

During the estate planning stage, there is an emphasis on selecting a trustworthy executor and/or trustee to prevent the possibility of future beneficiary disputes stemming from executor or trustee misconduct. Unfortunately, even executors and trustees who are selected with care can fail to fulfill their duties ethically and diligently. See our white paper “When Executors and Trustees Go Wrong.

Executor/administrator and trustee misconduct can take a variety of forms. Examples of executor/administrator or trustee misconduct include:

  • Breach of fiduciary duty
  • Mismanagement or misappropriation of estate or trust assets 
  • Failure to carry out duties
  • Failure to provide accurate accountings to beneficiaries
  • Failure to keep beneficiaries reasonably informed about administration
  • Failure to make timely distributions to beneficiaries

If you believe an executor/administrator or trustee to have committed any form of misconduct, it is important to get in touch with a beneficiary representation lawyer as soon as possible to prevent the executor/administrator or trustee from causing any additional damage. The beneficiary lawyer can help ensure your interest in a decedent’s estate or trust remains protected.

What can a beneficiary do if an executor/administrator or trustee fails to provide accountings or provides inaccurate accountings?

One of the primary duties of executors/administrators and trustees is to prepare estate accountings and trust accountings, respectively. It is their responsibility to create an inventory of assets at the start of administration and keep track of the assets that both come into and leave the estate or trust. In the case of trustees, they may be responsible for generating the trust income as well.

When a beneficiary does not receive accountings from executors/administrators or trustees or receives what they believe to be inaccurate accountings, a beneficiary lawyer can petition the court to have the executor/administrator or trustee provide a formal accounting or inspect provided accountings for errors and evidence of financial misconduct, respectively.

If an accounting does point to negligence or misconduct on the part of the executor/administrator or trustee, a beneficiary representation lawyer can help you challenge the accountings in court. The attorney for the beneficiary can also help have the executor/administrator or trustee removed and surcharged if their misconduct or negligence is significant.

What if an executor/administrator or trustee is not fulfilling their duties to beneficiaries?

If an executor/administrator or trustee is failing to fulfill their duties to beneficiaries (e.g., failing to act in their best interest, failing to keep them reasonably informed about administration, failing to remain impartial or failing to make distributions in a timely manner), beneficiaries can hire a beneficiary lawyer to petition the court to have the executor/administrator or trustee suspended or removed.

If it becomes apparent that the executor/administrator or trustee caused damage to the estate or trust, respectively, a beneficiary lawyer may also be able to petition the court to have it assess a surcharge on the offending executor/administrator or trustee, and possibly even compel them to cover the beneficiaries’ attorney fees and costs.

To learn more about the remedies available to you for alleged executor/administrator or trustee misconduct, speak with a beneficiary lawyer about your case.


Property Disputes

Property disputes occur when more than one party – whether it be a person or entity – is claiming ownership of a certain piece of property, such as real estate. These kinds of disputes generally involve beneficiaries, executors/administrators or trustees, and/or third-parties.

When there is a dispute over property, it is essential to have an experienced beneficiary lawyer on your side, as litigation has the potential to drain an estate or trust of its resources. A beneficiary lawyer can help you devise the most cost-effective solution to your dispute.

Examples of scenarios in which disputes over property can arise include:

While still alive, a decedent gave away an asset belonging to their estate or trust (e.g., they gave away their home to a new partner, even though the terms of their will dictated that the home should go to their children).

A grantor started to transfer property, but they died prior to completing the transfer (e.g., they entered into a contract to sell real estate, but didn’t manage to complete the transaction before dying).

A beneficiary designation contradicts the terms of a will or trust (e.g., the designated beneficiary on a bank account is the decedent’s new spouse, but according to the terms of the decedent’s will, the bank account is supposed to pass to the decedent’s children).

A third-party is claiming ownership of an asset belonging to a decedent’s estate or trust (e.g., the decedent was unknowingly in possession of an asset that belonged to their friend and is attempting to dispose of it through their will).

Sometimes, property disputes can be easily resolved with a petition. Other times, they are more complicated. A beneficiary lawyer can help determine whether it is in a beneficiary’s best interest to bring or defend one.

What happens in property disputes between third-parties and an estate or trust?

Many property disputes involve a third-party claiming entitlement to an asset that a decedent’s estate or trust is in possession of, or vice versa. When these sorts of disputes arise, an interested party may file a petition pursuant to Probate Code section 850 (an “850 Petition”), to obtain a court order determining ownership of the asset.

There is never a guarantee that the court will approve an 850 Petition. However, by having a beneficiary lawyer file on your behalf, you significantly increase the likelihood of your case reaching a resolution you find favorable.

Beneficiary Designation Disputes

Certain kinds of assets may have what is called a designated beneficiary. This means that the asset can transfer directly to the beneficiary upon the asset owner’s death without passing through probate.

Beneficiary designation disputes occur when a beneficiary designation is challenged by an interested party, such as an estate or trust beneficiary, an executor/administrator or trustee, or when a beneficiary designation contradicts the terms of a will or trust.

Consider the following examples:
  • The designated beneficiary of a decedent’s bank account is different from whom the decedent named as the beneficiary of the same account on their will.
  • The decedent failed to change the designated beneficiary on their life insurance policy to be their new spouse, so the designated beneficiary is instead their former spouse.
  • A loved one of the decedent is challenging the beneficiary designation on an IRA account because the designated beneficiary was changed just days before the decedent’s death when the decedent was not fully competent.

While there are benefits to designating beneficiaries (e.g., assets can transfer to the beneficiary without delay following the decedent’s death), it has its downsides as well (e.g., beneficiary designations are not subject to court supervision nor can restrictions be placed on the beneficiary’s use of them). A beneficiary lawyer can not only help designated beneficiaries claim and protect their inheritances but also anyone seeking to challenge a beneficiary designation.

Is it possible to dispute a life insurance policy beneficiary designation?

While it can be challenging to contest the designated beneficiary on a life insurance policy, it is not impossible, especially if the person contesting the designation is able to prove that it was not the policyholder’s intent to name the designated beneficiary.

The aforementioned example of the beneficiary on a life insurance policy being a former spouse is a common scenario in life insurance beneficiary designation disputes. 

Life insurance beneficiary designation disputes also commonly occur because the policyholder changed their designated beneficiary around the time of their death. Their loved ones may be able to contest the designation on the grounds of the decedent not having been competent or having been unduly influenced when they made that change.

A beneficiary lawyer can provide further guidance if the designated beneficiary on a life insurance policy needs to be challenged or defended.

What happens if a beneficiary designation contradicts the terms of a will or trust?

In general, beneficiary designations override the terms of a will or trust, which is why it is important for people to not just update their estate planning documents when they have life changes (e.g., they get married or divorced or, have a child) but their beneficiary designations as well.

Even though beneficiary designations take precedence, it is not impossible to challenge them, especially in scenarios where it is apparent that the decedent had simply forgotten to update the beneficiary designation (e.g., a bank account has a designated beneficiary who is a former spouse, but the trust states that the assets contained in the bank account should go to the current spouse) or in scenarios that seem suspect (e.g., the decedent changed the beneficiary designations on several of their bank accounts to be a friend just days before their death).

When beneficiary designation disputes arise, a beneficiary lawyer can help you take swift action to ensure the asset ends up in the hands of the beneficiary whom the asset owner had intended.

Rights of Spouses, Children and Unmarried Couples

Spouses, children and cohabitating unmarried partners may have certain inheritance rights, even if they were not included as beneficiaries on a decedent’s will or trust. A beneficiary lawyer can help enforce these groups’ inheritance rights if a will of trust violates them.

The following are examples of scenarios in which a spouse’s, child’s or cohabitating partner’s inheritance rights may have been violated:

  • The decedent is trying to dispose of their spouse’s half of the community property through their trust.
  • The decedent created their will prior to having their most recent child and died before having had an opportunity to update it.
  • A decedent’s will attempts to dispose of property that was verbally agreed upon to go to the decedent’s cohabitating unmarried partner.

If you belong to one of the aforementioned categories, it is crucial you consult with an attorney for beneficiaries to learn about how you can enforce your inheritance rights.

What are the inheritance rights of surviving spouses?

In the context of marriages, there are two broad categories of property: community property and separate property. In general, community property refers to any assets acquired over the course of a marriage, while separate property refers to any assets that belonged to a spouse prior to marriage or any gifts or inheritances received by a spouse during marriage.

Because of community property laws, if a decedent is married at the time of their death, they can only dispose of their half of the community property through their will or trust. The other half of the couple’s community property belongs to the surviving spouse.

If a surviving spouse believes their deceased spouse is disposing of more than their half of the community property, they should solicit the help of a beneficiary lawyer to enforce their rights. Beneficiary lawyers can also help beneficiaries who are seeking to defend their inheritances from spouses who are claiming ownership of them.

What happens if a spouse or child was inadvertently omitted from the decedent’s will or trust?

There may be protections within the law for spouses and children who were accidentally omitted as beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate or trust (i.e., for spouses and children who were “pretermitted”). If, for instance, the decedent executed their will or trust prior to marrying their surviving spouse or prior to having children, the spouse and children will generally have a right to a share of the decedent’s estate or trust.

What happens if a decedent’s surviving spouse and children depended on the decedent for their financial support?

There may be certain protections available for the surviving spouse and children who were financially dependent on the decedent when the decedent died. For instance, it is generally permitted for the surviving spouse and any minor children of the decedent to remain in their family home until the youngest child comes of legal age. A probate homestead can protect against beneficiaries and creditors claiming the home.

Surviving spouses and children who were dependent on the decedent may also be entitled to a family allowance that can be taken from the decedent’s estate. The allowance can provide financial support to these family members until administration is complete, and the executor/administrator and/or trustee can make distributions.

What are the inheritance rights of cohabitating unmarried partners?

California does not recognize the concept of common law marriage; however, when unmarried couples live together, they may have a written, oral or implied agreement to leave the other person some or all of their assets when they die, and those agreements may be enforceable, just like any other contract. Disputes could arise if the partners failed to formalize the agreement through a legally valid document, such as a will. 

If no formal estate planning documents memorializing the agreement had been in place when the decedent died, the surviving partner may be able to claim an inheritance from their partner’s estate or trust by arguing that an oral agreement has existed between the couple and should be enforced. 

A beneficiary lawyer can assist surviving partners with bringing a claim if they feel they are owed an inheritance. Likewise, they can help estate and trust beneficiaries defend their inheritances if a surviving partner of the decedent is attempting to claim them.

How Keystone’s Beneficiary Lawyers Can Help You

Since Keystone deals exclusively in probate matters, its lawyers can effectively handle virtually any issue beneficiaries are likely to face. In fact, the majority of Keystone’s clients are beneficiaries

From assisting beneficiaries with understanding the will or trust instrument to filing a claim on their behalf, Keystone’s beneficiary lawyers can help beneficiaries claim their rightful inheritances. In this section, you can learn about the specific kinds of issues Keystone’s experienced beneficiary lawyers can help resolve.

Enforcing Your Inheritance Rights

Regardless of whether you are a trust or estate beneficiary, a primary or contingent beneficiary, a designated beneficiary, a disinherited heir, or a spouse or child of the decedent, Keystone’s beneficiary lawyers can help enforce your inheritance rights.

Here are some of the specific ways in which Keystone’s attorneys for beneficiaries can help beneficiaries seeking to enforce their inheritance rights:

  • Interpreting the will or trust instrument
  • Inspecting the accountings of executors/administrators and trustees
  • Keeping a pulse on administration to make sure it is progressing smoothly
  • Ensuring the executor/administrator or trustee is acting in the best interest of beneficiaries
  • Securing distributions for beneficiaries if they have not been made in a timely manner

If you require any of the aforementioned beneficiary services or even a service that is not on this list, get in touch with one of Keystone’s beneficiary lawyers to learn how our firm can help.

Bringing a Will or Trust Contest

Keystone’s beneficiary lawyers are experienced in representing beneficiaries who are bringing or defending will and trust contests. If you have cause to believe that a will or trust needs to be invalidated, or someone is seeking to have a will or trust invalidated for no good reason, our beneficiary lawyers can help. They can counsel you on the best approach for favorably resolving your case.

Some of the specific ways our beneficiary lawyers can help in will or trust contest cases include:

  • Investigating whether misconduct played a role in the drafting, modification or execution of a trust
  • Bringing a will or trust contest
  • Defending a will or trust contest

If you are unsure about whether it is worth your time and money to bring a will or trust contest, our beneficiary lawyers can provide advice after reviewing your case.

Other Litigation

There is much that can go awry following someone’s death in terms of their assets. Keystone’s beneficiary lawyers are equipped to effectively handle any disputes that arise, from the removal of an executor or trustee to enforcing spousal rights.

Some of the specific ways Keystone’s beneficiary lawyers can help litigate beneficiary disputes include:

  • Recovering damages from other beneficiaries, executors/administrators, trustees or third-parties who caused harm to the estate or trust
  • Suspending or removing and surcharging an executor/administrator or trustee
  • Bringing or defending an elder abuse claim
  • Contesting or defending a beneficiary designation

On top of being costly, time-consuming and emotionally draining, litigation can significantly delay the distribution of a decedent’s assets. This is why it is important to consult with a beneficiary lawyer prior to bringing a claim. The beneficiary lawyer may be able to provide you with alternate solutions to litigation if the cons of litigating outweigh the pros.

Contact Us

Schedule a Free Consultation to Learn How Our Beneficiary Lawyers Can Help You!

Claim your rightful inheritance with help from our seasoned beneficiary lawyers. Our services for beneficiaries are comprehensive, covering everything from interpreting a will or trust to handling any disputes that arise. Call us today to learn the specific ways our beneficiary lawyers can help you.