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Examining no contest clauses

| May 31, 2018 | Inheritance Disputes |

Seattle residents certainly do not want to see their decisions regarding the dispersal of their estates to cause contention amongst their beneficiaries. Being as transparent as possible in the structuring of a will might help to avoid that, yet there still may be situations where one beneficiary who is unhappy about what he or she receives chooses to dispute the matter and hold up the entire estate administration process. Some might say that there is an easy way to avoid this: simply include a “no contest” clause in a will.

A no contest clause (also called an in terrorem clause) can punish a beneficiary who chooses to dispute a will. That punishment may range from disinheriting the person pushing for a dispute to limiting his or her interest in the estate to a nominal amount (potentially to even as low as a few dollars). The purpose of such clauses is (of course) to deter beneficiaries from questioning the validity of a will (and, by extension, the testator’s wishes). Yet questions have arisen regarding the enforceability of no-contest clauses. Washington has no law currently on the books that specifically addresses no-contest clauses. Rulings issued by the state’s Supreme Court, however, have held that they are valid, yet challenges initiated in good faith are still permissible. 

What are some of the legitimate concerns that might cause one to question a will? The American Association of Retired Persons lists some to be: 

  • If a testator lacked the capacity needed to make decisions regarding his or her estate
  • If it is believed one exercised undue influence over a testator 
  • If a will might be fraudulent 
  • If a will was improperly executed

Court officials may also use the standard of whether a competent legal professional would have encouraged action in determining whether it was warranted.