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Do the California probate courts enforce no-contest clauses?

On Behalf of | Mar 29, 2024 | Probate

A variety of different people have an interest in an estate after someone dies. The family members of the deceased have an interest as heirs or beneficiaries. Close acquaintances or trusted individuals may have accepted a request to serve as the personal representative of the estate. Many different people could, therefore, end up affected by probate litigation. Litigation can significantly increase how long it takes to complete the probate process and can consume estate resources. A will contest is one of the more common reasons that estates end up entangled in lengthy probate proceedings.

Family members or beneficiaries who question the validity of the will or the mindset of the testator when drafting documents could challenge the documents in California probate court. Occasionally, testators include special causes in estate planning paperwork to deter people from initiating probate litigation by imposing a major penalty if they take action in this way.

What no-contest classes do

Testators sometimes integrate no-contest clauses into wills or trusts. People with challenging family dynamics or particularly valuable assets may worry about the potential for litigation diminishing their legacy. No-contest clauses include language that penalizes anyone who brings an unnecessary challenge against the estate. Often, frivolous probate litigation could lead to someone losing their inheritance completely. Therefore, those with an interest in an estate need to know if such clauses could actually affect the outcome of probate proceedings.

The courts do uphold no-contest clauses

California, like the vast majority of other states in the country, recognizes the theoretical validity of no-contest clauses. If someone is a beneficiary of an estate and brings an unnecessary will challenge, the judge could uphold the no-contest clause and eliminate their inheritance rights. However, California probate sketches do include an exception for the enforcement of these clauses. Specifically, if someone can show that they had probable cause to initiate probate litigation, meaning a reasonable and verifiable suspicion of a specific issue or type of misconduct, then the courts may hear the contest without denying someone their inheritance.

Those who understand when a no-contest clause is enforceable can then make informed choices about including such clauses in their estate planning, whether to pursue probate litigation, how to respond to a lawsuit, etc. This is just one of the ways in which understanding the rules that govern estate administration in California may benefit those with an interest in someone’s estate.