What Is A No-Contest Clause and Why Have One in Your Will?
A no-contest clause, also known as an in terrorem clause, is a clause in a will or revocable trust that is intended to prevent parties from contesting the will or trust by penalizing them for doing so. For example, a no-contest clause in a will may state that any party that contests the will is barred from inheriting anything under the will. A no-contest clause is a deterrent to nuisance lawsuits and cash grabs by parties who may want to get more from the estate than the will or trust allows.
A no-contest clause can:
- Discourage years of expensive and time-consuming litigation over an estate
- Prevent bickering and strain between family members and heirs of the estate
- Keep the testator’s private details private (since private details may become public in litigation)
This is not a standard clause in most estate planning documents. It’s typically only included if the testator expects there may be some disagreement over the estate plan after their death. You may want to include one in your will or revocable trust if, for example, you have given some children a larger portion of your estate than your other children, or have disinherited a child altogether, and therefore might expect a challenge to your estate plan.
When a No-Contest Clause is Unenforceable
In general, these clauses are valid and enforceable.
But many jurisdictions have recognized certain circumstances where no-contest clauses are not valid and enforceable: If the party challenging the will or trust has probable cause. If they believe forgery is involved, or they believe the document is the result of undue influence or duress, then the no-contest clause can be held invalid and unenforceable.
A South Carolina Supreme Court case filed in 2006, Russell v Wachovia, looked at this very issue. The opinion cited a North Carolina case in which 6 of 10 children contested their deceased father’s will, citing undue influence and duress. In this case, the deceased was 90 years old when he died, had been in declining health for years, was “worn out and feeble,” and at times failed to recognize his own children. The children challenging the will also noted that two other daughters who stood to inherit a substantial amount were always present at their father’s home when they visited. The court ruled that in this case, the no-contest clause was not enforceable, as the children who contested the will had probable cause to do so. The evidence demonstrated that it was reasonable to believe their father’s estate plan may have been the product of undue influence or duress.
That was very different from the case at hand in Russell v Wachovia, in which two children filed actions to set aside their father’s will and trusts. The South Carolina Supreme Court ultimately found that the no-contest clauses were enforceable. The only evidence to support probable cause here was “strife and discord” in the family, and the fact that the two children who contested the estate plan weren’t treated as well as they believed their father intended. The Supreme Court did not find this to be probable cause to contest the estate in the first place, thus the no-contest clauses were upheld. The two children who contested the will were therefore not allowed to inherit anything under the will and trust they contested.
Creating a Strong No-Contest Clause
If you do want to add a no-contest clause to your will or revocable trust, there are a few things you can do that may strengthen its validity if your estate plan is ever contested. In Russell v Wachovia, the Supreme Court noted that the testator:
- Was in good physical and mental health when he created his estate plan, still working and taking care of himself
- Told one of his sons and his attorney that he anticipated a potential challenge to his will and trust after his death
- Asked a former law clerk of his (he was a judge) to represent his grandchildren, whom he made beneficiaries, in case of a challenge
- Visited a psychiatrist to create a record of his testamentary capacity, i.e., to certify that he was legally and mentally able to make a valid estate plan
- “And most importantly,” according to the Court, he amended his will and revocable trust to include language that explicitly barred any party contesting the documents from benefiting under them
Taken altogether, these points only helped strengthen the validity of the no-contest clauses, as they demonstrated that his estate plan was not made under duress or undue influence. The Court concluded that “If a no-contest clause cannot be upheld under these facts, such a clause would not ever be enforceable.”
Get Help Creating a Strong and Enforceable Estate Plan
Estate planning can be complex, especially if you have a substantial estate, a large or blended family, or own a business. Having a solid estate plan is the best way to ensure your wishes will be carried out and can help keep peace in the family. For help with your estate planning documents, contact the Gem McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant. Gem McDowell and his associatess are problem solvers who can develop the estate plan you need to protect your assets and your family. Call 843-284-1021 today to schedule your free consultation.