Wills and trusts do not always clearly convey their creators’ true final intentions, nor do they necessarily reflect what their creators’ true final intentions were. If you have concerns about a decedent’s will or trust, it may be possible to dispute the document. A lawyer can help you determine whether a valid cause exists to bring a dispute.
In the following guide, we discuss the types of disputes that can arise as a result of a problematic will or trust instrument. If you believe you have a will or trust dispute on your hands, contact the team at Keystone for a free consultation today.
A will dispute can occur following a decedent’s death if there is uncertainty about the true meaning of a will’s terms or if an interested party has reason to believe the will is invalid.
A trust is another type of estate planning document in which the creator of the trust, called the settlor, gives a party, called the trustee, the right to hold title to assets and property for the benefit of third parties, called trust beneficiaries. A trust can be revocable, which means that the settlor has the right to revoke it while they are alive and competent, or irrevocable, which means that once the trust is signed, the settlor cannot revoke it. Once a settlor dies, their trust will usually automatically become irrevocable, and the person they nominated to the role of successor trustee will take over management of the trust. Unlike wills, trusts are not required to pass through probate.
A trust dispute can occur if the instrument is faulty or contains ambiguous provisions, or if an interested party believes the instrument to be invalid. Disputes over a trust can take place while the settlor is alive but incompetent, or following the death of the settlor.
The validity of a will or trust can be disputed by interested parties so long as they have a valid reason for doing so; disliking the terms of the document or believing that they are deserving of a larger inheritance does not count. If the validity of a will or trust is disputed, the court will consider relevant evidence and testimony to ultimately make a determination about whether to uphold the disputed will or trust, or invalidate it. If the court invalidates a will or trust, or one or more of its amendments, the relevant assets will pass in accordance with the decedent’s previous estate planning documents so long as they were valid. If none existed, the relevant assets will pass to the decedent’s intestate heirs in accordance with the laws of intestate succession.
When a trust or will dispute is brought to a judge, one or more parties are claiming that the entire document or parts of the document are either too ambiguous to understand or are invalid in some other way.
Contesting a Will or Trust: A will or trust contest can be brought if it is believed that the document in question—whether it be portions of the document or the entire document—is invalid. To contest a will or trust, it is necessary you have standing. In other words, if you were to win your contest, you should stand to receive a larger inheritance than what you are receiving under the decedent’s current will or trust. Persons with standing generally include beneficiaries, heirs and beneficiaries under any prior versions of the document.
Examples of grounds for bringing a will or trust contest:
A will or trust can be disputed if it contains ambiguous terms, or terms that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Documents can have patent ambiguities, language that is problematic on its face, or latent ambiguities, language that is not problematic on its face but creates confusion for the executor or trustee when they attempt to carry out the terms of the document. Executors and trustees should not attempt to interpret ambiguous language themselves to avoid breaching their duty of impartiality, even if they believe they know the creator of the document’s true intention.
Examples of ambiguities in wills and trusts:
Certain categories of individuals—such as fiduciaries, caregivers, and drafters of wills and trusts, as well as their family members, cohabitants and employees—can be automatically disqualified from receiving an inheritance due to a presumption of undue influence if the decedent leaves them a large portion of their estate or trust. When a person is in a position of trust and confidence, and they have consistent access to the creator of a will or trust, who then proceeds to leave them a large gift, the court presumes wrongdoing, and the burden of proof will lie with the disqualified person to prove otherwise.
Examples of disputes involving disqualified persons:
If a spouse or child was unintentionally excluded from a will or trust by the decedent on account of their having executed the document prior to knowing about their spouse or child’s existence, then the spouse or child is considered “omitted.” Spouses and children who were expressly disinherited via a will or trust or provided for through other means are not considered omitted. That being said, omitted spouses and children generally have the same inheritance rights as a spouse or child who was not omitted. In other words, an omitted spouse will be entitled to 50% of the community property, and an omitted child may be entitled to an inheritance if they are under 18 or had been financially dependent on the decedent when they died.
Examples of disputes involving omitted spouses and children:
If a will or trust is being disputed, the appropriate party to defend the dispute generally will be determined by the nature of the dispute. While the trustee or executor can sometimes have an obligation to defend a trust or will dispute, their getting involved can also be seen as a violation of their duty of impartiality under some circumstances. This is why it is vital for executors and trustees to speak with a lawyer prior to involving themselves in a dispute.
Examples of instances in which a will or trust dispute may need to be defended:
A surviving spouse may wish to defend a will or trust dispute if the outcome of the dispute could affect their community property rights.
If a spouse or child of the decedent has been “omitted” from their will or trust, it means that the decedent unintentionally excluded them on account of their having executed the document prior to knowing about their existence. A spouse or child cannot be regarded as omitted if the decedent’s will or trust expressly disinherits them or if the decedent provided for them through other means. That being said, if a spouse or child has been omitted unintentionally, they generally have the same inheritance rights as a spouse or child who had not been omitted, i.e., the spouse would be entitled to 50% of the community property, and the child may receive an inheritance if they are under 18 or had been financially dependent on the decedent when they died
Keystone’s attorneys are well-versed in the types of will and trust disputes mentioned above and can help you devise a winning litigation strategy based on your specific set of circumstances and legal goals.
If you are a beneficiary or heir, a trust or will dispute could affect your inheritance by increasing it, or possibly even reducing or eliminating it. Regardless of whether you are seeking to fight for your rightful inheritance or protect your inheritance during a dispute, we can help enforce your rights by bringing or defending a trust or will dispute.
The question of whether a trustee should involve themselves in a trust dispute by bringing or defending a claim is complicated, as many factors must be considered. If you are a trustee, we can help you determine the best course of action in a trust dispute.
It is not always clear whether executors or administrators should participate in a will dispute by bringing or defending a claim, as there are many angles to consider. We can help executors and administrators decide the role they should play in a will dispute.
If you are a surviving spouse who believes your community property rights are being violated by a will or trust, or if you feel that a will or trust dispute brought by another party could threaten your inheritance, we can help protect your interests.
Keystone’s client was the decedent’s closest living heir; however, the sole beneficiary of the decedent’s estate plan was the decedent’s caregiver and former financial adviser, which the client found unusual. Upon carrying out its investigation, Keystone discovered that the caregiver had the decedent allegedly sign multiple estate planning documents with an “X” when he ostensibly lacked the mental competence to do so. Furthermore, the decedent’s will had been handwritten by the caregiver. Ultimately, Keystone reached a favorable settlement for its client that allowed the client to recover a significant share of the decedent’s assets from the caregiver. Read full case study.
Keystone’s client was the trustee of his sister and brother-in-law’s trust. The document contained ambiguous language relating to its primary asset—the decedents’ home. Namely, it did not specify how the proceeds from the sale of the home should be divided among the deceased couple’s separate sets of children from previous marriages. Even though the trustee client believed he could interpret the ambiguous terms based on his past conversations with the couple, Keystone advised him to file what is known as a Petition for Instructions with the court to protect himself against liability in case his actions could be interpreted as being partial. Ultimately, Keystone not only helped the client obtain the clarification he needed to fairly distribute the asset to beneficiaries based on the provisions of the trust and extrinsic evidence, but we also helped him avoid a breach of duty claim being brought against him. Read full case study.
Keystone’s clients came to the firm for help invalidating a trust after learning that the decedent from whom they stood to inherit had left the entirety of his trust estate to a new partner he had just met off a dating site who was 50 years his junior and an ostensible predator. At the urging of this partner, the decedent amended his trust, Soon after, he died under suspicious circumstances. Ultimately, by arguing that the actions of the decedent’s new partner constituted elder financial abuse, Keystone was able to reach a favorable settlement for its clients that called for the new version of the trust to be invalidated. Read full case study.
Keystone represented a client in her 70s whose son overly medicated her to take her to an estate planning attorney to create an irrevocable trust of which he would be named the trustee. As trustee, the son proceeded to misappropriate trust assets to the detriment of the client, who relied on those assets to cover her expenses. At the initial hearing, Keystone’s probate attorneys persuaded the court to immediately suspend the son as trustee and replace him with a private professional fiduciary. Later, Keystone was successful in having the trust invalidated, which enabled its client to once again control her own assets. Read full case study.
Keystone’s clients were the grandchildren of the decedent. Despite the clients having cared for the decedent during her old age, she had disinherited them from her trust after her estranged son brought false allegations of elder abuse against them and used those allegations to secure a temporary conservatorship over her. The son then proceeded to taken his mother to his own estate planning attorney just three days before she died—and at a time when she lacked capacity—to execute a new trust that named him as the sole beneficiary and disinherited Keystone’s clients, who were the primary beneficiaries under her old trust. The Keystone team argued that the elder abuse allegations levied against its clients has been falsified and that the decedent did not have the requisite capacity to create a new trust when she did. As a result of its compelling arguments, Keystone was able to secure for its clients a settlement in which they received the majority of the decedent’s assets. Read full case study.
At Keystone, our attorneys exclusively focus on probate law. We have the knowledge and expertise to effectively serve you in trust and will dispute cases and secure for you the resolution you want. Members of our team have earned numerous accomplishments and accolades, including:
Recognition in professional law publications, including Daily Journal, Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers®
We specialize in California-based will and trust disputes, commonly serving:
It depends on the circumstances of the case. If the trust or will dispute benefits the trust or estate and its beneficiaries, there is a good chance attorney’s fees and costs can be paid using trust or estate funds. Likewise, if a trustee or executor is defending a dispute, or they are disputing a beneficiary on account of elder financial abuse, they generally will be permitted to use trust or estate funds to cover legal expenses.
Conversely, if a beneficiary or heir is bringing a dispute that benefits them personally, or they are defending a dispute that threatens their inheritance, it is likely they will have to pay for their own representation.
In reality, it is difficult to provide concrete information about cost without knowing the specifics of your case. Our attorneys can provide more information related to cost during your free consultation.
Not necessarily. While it is ultimately up to the trustee or executor how they wish to handle ambiguous language within the document, it is always better for them to err on the side of caution and seek clarification from the court when it comes to such matters. Many times the trustee or executor will know the meaning of the ambiguous language based on what they know about the settlor or executor; however, the beneficiaries may disagree with their interpretation and bring a misconduct claim against them as a result.
When ambiguities appear in a trust or will, our lawyers can help you file a Petition for Instructions. At the hearing, the trustee or executor may be given an opportunity to provide testimony about what they know, If the court can interpret the ambiguous terms based on the rest of the document and extrinsic evidence, it will proceed with doing so; however, if the meaning of the ambiguous language is still not clear, it may move to invalidate the problematic parts of the document.
If a trust or will is successfully disputed, resulting in the entire document, or portions of the document, being invalidated, then the assets contained in those parts of the document will either pass down in accordance with prior valid versions of the document or with the laws of intestate succession. California’s intestate succession statutes have strict guidelines relating to which of a decedent’s heirs stand to inherit if a decedent dies without a trust or will, of if a trust or will is invalidated.
The answer is generally no. To bring a trust or will dispute, it is usually required that you are either a representative of the trust or estate, or you are an interested party, such as a beneficiary, heir or beneficiary under a prior version of the document.
While you could opt to pursue a claim related to a trust or will without the assistance of a qualified lawyer, we would not recommend it. A probate attorney has the experience, knowledge and skills to understand all the angles of your case and devise a strategy to achieve your legal goals. Furthermore, a lawyer will be able to gather all the facts of your matter and present them effectively to the court.
If you are concerned about the cost of litigation, our team may be able to offer you budget-friendly options. Your best bet is to schedule a free consultation to learn more.