If you have suspicions regarding a trust, you may be able to contest the document under circumstances. But what are the legal grounds for contesting a trust, and what do you have to prove to the court?
Why Might Beneficiaries Want to Contest a Trust?
You may want to contest a trust in the following situations:
Trust does not represent the settlor’s wishes
Beneficiaries may claim that the settlor was manipulated or defrauded by someone who exerted undue influence over them to set up the trust in a certain way. While difficult to prove, this unfortunately does happen. A judge will be required to render a decision on whether or not the trust is valid.
Trust does not serve its purpose
In some cases, the current reality of the situation may prevent it from serving its original purpose. For example, the trust may cost more to administer than the assets held in the trust or the amount received by the beneficiaries. Trusts may contain provisions that allow them to be dissolved in those instances.
Language of the trust is ambiguous
If beneficiaries and the trustee disagree as to the interpretation of specific provisions of the trust, the court can be asked to either terminate the trust or render a decision on the settlor’s intent.
What Are Legal Grounds for Contesting a Trust?
In order to successfully challenge a trust document, you must provide the court with legal grounds on which the trust can be deemed invalid. There are three main grounds for contesting a trust:
1. Fraud or undue influence
Caretakers or beneficiaries in close contact to your loved one may have manipulated them into setting assets aside to be distributed for their benefit. If you can prove undue influence, duress, or forgery, the trust may be deemed invalid.
2. Lack of capacity
Anyone over 18 can create a valid trust, but the trust is only recognized as legally valid if they were completely cognizant of what they were doing. For instance, those with dementia could not create a legally valid trust.
3. Legal provisions
In California, a trust requires two non-interested parties to act as witnesses and sign the trust. The witnesses cannot be beneficiaries, nor can they be the trust’s grantors.
How Can You Prove Undue Influence?
When a trust or a will is contested, the main allegation is usually fraud and undue influence. For example, a beneficiary may have made caring for the settlor contingent upon being included in the trust. Or they may have taken advantage of the settlor so that the trust awards them more than it otherwise would have. Sometimes exerting undue influence may involve threats of violence, intimidation, or simply exerting a great deal of power over the settlor’s day-to-day living.
To prove undue influence, you must show that:
- There was a confidential relationship between the beneficiary and the settlor;
- Influencer obtained the trust; and
- Influencer received undue benefit from the trust.
You must also show that:
- Victim was vulnerable;
- Influencer had authority over the settlor;
- Influencer influenced the victim; and
- Undue influence resulted in an unfair outcome.
How to Start a Trust Contest
For the most part, contesting a trust is no different from contesting a will. The petition is filed with the probate court and will need to state the grounds for contesting the trust as well as the facts supporting your claim.
A trust attorney can help you draft a complaint, including the grounds on which the trust is being contested, and provide the court with proof that the trust is invalid. Once the trustee sends notice, you only have 120 days to act.