The Statute of Limitations For Contesting a Trust

By Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

The Statute of Limitations For Contesting a Trust

By Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

When deciding what to include in your estate plan, attorneys often suggest that you create a trust. A trust is an instrument that does not go through probate like a will does but, rather, gives beneficiaries their inherited property faster than if you had left it to them in a will.

A trust also allows your beneficiaries to avoid going to court. Sometimes, though, beneficiaries or people who've been left out of a trust decide to challenge, or contest, your trust after you've passed, although they usually have a limited amount of time to do so.

Learn more about the statute of limitations your beneficiaries may face in dealing with your trust.


Contesting a Trust

You may have heard about contesting a will but, in many cases, if you're a beneficiary, you can also contest a trust. Of course, you must know that a trust exists before you can contest it. In some states, like New York, you may not even be advised about a trust's existence—or that you've been cut out as a beneficiary.

If someone close to you passes—called the decedent or the grantor—and you haven't received any information about their will or estate, check with an estate attorney so the attorney can find out whether an unknown trust exists.

You have a few grounds you can use to contest being left out of a trust or inheriting only a small amount. Grounds to contest a trust include that the:

  • Grantor was not of sound mind when making it
  • Trust is fraudulent
  • Grantor was under duress or someone exerted undue influence over them
  • Trust is invalid under its state's laws, such as failure to sign or notarize it
  • Grantor closed or revoked the trust
  • Trust is unclear or has more than one interpretation
  • Trust is superseded by a will

To contest a trust, file an action in probate or surrogate's court. You'll want to make sure you have a good probate attorney to help you do that, as trust contests can be difficult.

Time Period for Contesting a Trust

Anyone who contests a trust usually must do so within a short period of time. These time periods, known as statutes of limitations, vary somewhat from state to state. In many states, the trustee, or person in charge of the trust, gives beneficiaries a notice that the grantor of the trust has passed and that the trustee will settle the trust on a certain date, as stated in the notice.

Usually, a beneficiary, or someone who thinks they were wrongfully left out of the trust, has 120 days after the notice was sent to contest the trust. After 120 days, which is an extremely short statute of limitations, every beneficiary or person who believes they were wrongfully left out may no longer contest the trust.

If the trustee fails to send the required notice, anyone who wants to contest the trust usually has two or three years to do so, depending on the state where the trust is located. California imposes no limitation period if the trustee never sends out the notice; the beneficiary theoretically has an unlimited amount of time in which to contest the trust. In New York, the law is unclear as to whether the person contesting the trust has six years or a much shorter time period to contest the trust.

No matter what state the trust is in, it's important to raise your objections and contest the trust as soon as you learn about it. The longer you fail to act, the easier it is for the court to deny your application, as the money and property may have already been distributed. The court also could consider that you didn't act quickly enough even if the statute of limitations gives you several years to contest it.

No-Contest Clauses in Trusts

Some trusts contain no-contest clauses. No-contest clauses state that if a beneficiary contests the trust, they cannot claim the property that was left to them by the decedent, or they may have to take less than the decedent originally intended for them. No-contest clauses don't apply to people who were left out of a trust, as there's nothing for them to give up. The purpose of a no-contest clause is to prevent unnecessary litigation.

In some states, no-contest clauses are invalid. Other states declare no-contest clauses valid except where there's an honest belief that the trust was created by fraud, undue influence, or another similar issue. Check the law in the state where the trust is located.

Again, before contesting a trust, it's a good idea to hire a probate or trusts attorney because the reason to contest the trust, the statute of limitations, or a no-contest clause can make your court case extremely complicated.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.