Understanding the Consequences of a “No-Contest” Clause In Your Will or Trust

October 25, 2013 by Scott C. Soady

The whole point of making a will or trust is to prevent disputes over the disposition of your estate after your death. One way to protect your estate plan is to include a no-contest provision in your trust or will. Basically, a no-contest provision states that if a person tries to challenge any part of your trust or will in court—and fails—he or she forfeits any inheritance from your estate. No-contest provisions have long been recognized by courts, and in 2010, the California legislature expressly recognized such provisions in the state's Probate Code.

A recent California Court of Appeal decision demonstrates how this works in practice. In this case, the court upheld a no-contest clause. Please note this case is discussed for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as a binding statement of California law.

A Son Tries to Change His Mother's Trust (and Loses)
Edward and Nancy Bellezzo executed a trust in 1995. Upon Edward Bellezzo's death the following year, the trust was divided into two sub-trusts. The first trust was irrevocable, while the second remained under Nancy Bellezzo's control until her death in 2007. Nancy Bellezzo was free to amend or revoke the second sub-trust during this period.

Upon Nancy Bellezzo's death, the remaining trust assets were to be divided equally between her two sons, Edward and Donald Bellezzo. The trust also contained a no-contest provision stating a beneficiary would forfeit his share if he should “contest in any court the validity of this trust” or attempt to nullify any of its provisions. In such a case, the contesting beneficiary would be treated as if he (and all of his descendants) had predeceased Nancy Bellezzo.

Donald Bellezzo filed a petition in 2008 asking a probate court to rule on the validity of what he claimed was an amendment to his mother's sub-trust that she purportedly signed in 2000. The amendment said Donald Bellezzo would receive $100,000 from the trust upfront, with any remaining assets divided equally between him and his brother. The court ultimately ruled against Donald Bellezzo's petition, finding he could not prove the amendment was authentic.

Edward Bellezzo then filed his own petition seeking to enforce the no-contest clause. He argued his brother attempted to “change a material term of the trust” and, in doing so, mounted a failed contest. The probate court agreed. It found Donald Bellezzo “did not have probable cause to believe the alleged amendment was authentic,” and therefore enforcement of the no-contest clause was appropriate.

The court of appeal agreed with the probate judge's decision. It noted that Nancy Bellezzo's trust included a clear no-contest provision and that Donald Bellezzo's attempt to pass off a “non-genuine amendment” altering the trust's distribution in his favor was clearly a “contest” as defined in the Probate Code. The appeals court further rejected a number of other arguments Donald Bellezzo offered to save his now-forfeited inheritance.

An experienced California estate planning attorney can advise you on whether or not to include a no-contest clause in your will or trust. While such clauses are standard, you should always ensure that your will or trust reflects your precise wishes. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today in San Diego if you have any questions.