The Effect of No-Contest Clauses in Missouri
Assume that, after long and careful consideration, you have implemented an estate plan that you consider ideal for your and your family’s needs. It disposes of your assets according to your wishes in a manner that you think is fair and just. The last thing you would want is for one of your heirs or beneficiaries to challenge your will or trust and jeopardize your estate plan. Luckily, Missouri law allows for the enforcement of no-contest clauses, which can prevent — or at least strongly discourage — will or trust contests. A Branson estate planning attorney can help you decide whether a non-contest provision is the right option for you.
What Are No-Contest Clauses?
No-contest clauses, also known as “in terrorem” clauses, are provisions within wills and trusts that are intended to prevent or discourage heirs and beneficiaries from challenging the validity of the document in question. Most no-contest clauses provide that anyone who challenges the will or trust will lose their inheritance or distribution as a consequence. No-contest clauses serve two purposes: first, to allow individuals the freedom to dispose of their property as they see fit, and second, to visit the “grave consequences” of a forfeiture upon beneficiaries who attempt to frustrate the intention of the donor.
A sample of a no-contest in a trust can be found in the 2020 Missouri Supreme Court case of Knopik v. Shelby Investments:
In case any beneficiary shall (i) contest the validity of this trust, or any provisions hereof, in whole or in part; (ii) make a claim against a trustee for maladministration or breach of trust; or (iii) attempt to remove a trustee for any reason, with or without cause; then such contest or claim and such attempt shall cancel and terminate all provisions for or in favor of the beneficiary making or inciting such contest or claim…
In that case, a trust beneficiary filed a petition against the trustee for breach of trust and to remove the trustee. The court held that, by doing so, the beneficiary had forfeited his interest in the trust because the plain language of the no-contest clause applied to such actions.
What Triggers a No-Contest Clause?
Heirs and beneficiaries attempt to challenge wills and trusts for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common grounds for will and trust contests relate to the validity of the document in question, including:
- The testator or settlor lacked capacity at the time the document was executed
- The document is the product of undue influence
- The document was procured on the basis of fraud, duress, or mistake
Heirs and beneficiaries may also challenge the administration of a will or administration of a trust through petitions for breach of fiduciary duty or petitions to have a trustee or administrator removed. Whether such actions constitute challenges of the will or trust itself depends on the wording of the no-contest clause in question. If you’re unsure of how broadly to write a no-contest clause, a Branson estate planning attorney can counsel you.
Enforceability of No-Contest Clauses in Wills and Trusts
No-contest provisions generally are valid and enforceable in Missouri. The enforceability of a no-contest clause in any specific case depends upon the facts of the case and the language of the forfeiture provision at issue. Courts study the language of no-contest clauses closely to determine whether their terms apply to the challenger’s actions. The general rule is that courts will enforce no-contest provisions where it is clear that the testator/settlor intended that the conduct in question should effect a forfeiture of the heir’s/beneficiary’s interest.
Safe Harbors From No-Contest Clauses
While some states create exceptions to the enforceability of no-contest clauses where the challenge is based in good faith or probable cause, there are no such exceptions in Missouri. However, Missouri law allows would-be challengers of both wills and trusts to “test the waters” before doing so. For more information about any of the safe harbors discussed herein, please contact a Branson estate planning attorney.
Under Section 474.395 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, an interested person may file a petition with the court to determine whether a particular motion, petition, action, or other claim for relief would trigger the application of a no-contest clause or would otherwise trigger a forfeiture under applicable law and policy.
Similarly, Section 456.4-420 RSMo allows an interested person to petition the court for a determination of whether a particular action would trigger a no-contest clause in a trust that has become irrevocable. Section 456.4-420 also provides that no-contest clauses in trusts are unenforceable in certain peripheral matters, including:
- Objecting to the jurisdiction or venue of the court over a proceeding concerning the trust
- Filing a motion, petition, or other claim concerning an accounting, report, or notice that should have been made by the trustee
- Filing a motion, petition, or other claim concerning the appointment of a guardian or conservator for the settlor
Should You Include a No-Contest Clause in Your Will or Trust?
We’ve established that no-contest clauses generally are enforceable in Missouri. But should you use one in your estate plan? The main positive of no-contest clauses is that they increase the likelihood that your estate will be disposed of exactly according to your wishes. The main drawback of no-contest clauses is that they leave little to no recourse for your heirs and beneficiaries if there are errors in your will or trust. Furthermore, no-contest clauses do not prevent disagreements — even with a no-contest clause, there is still a chance that your heirs and beneficiaries will bicker over your estate (albeit outside of court).
Speak to a Branson Estate Planning Attorney for Further Guidance on No-Contest Clauses
If you are considering incorporating one or more no-contest clauses into your estate planning documents, you should speak to an experienced attorney who can advise you on whether doing so makes sense in your case. For more information about no-contest clauses, please contact a Branson estate planning attorney at LifeGen Law Group by calling 417-823-9898 or using our online contact form.