"Construing a legal document and contesting it are two different things."

Second, the Court rejected the trial court's ruling that Count II violated the trust's no-contest clause.  That question must be answered by looking to the language of the particular no-contest provision at issue.  No contest provisions are both "strictly enforced," meaning courts will enforce them without regard to any harsh consequences, and "strictly construed," meaning that they must "precisely express" the intent to cause a forfeiture of a wayward beneficiary's interests.

Here, the no-contest clause in the mother's trust included precatory language stating that it was her desire that her "children and grandchildren not expend resources disputing loans, gifts or bequests that" she made.  It then prohibited contesting any provision of the trust, defined specifically as taking "any action seeking to invalidate, nullify, set aside, render unenforceable, or otherwise avoid the effect of an instrument, action or transaction."

That, the Supreme Court says, is not what the brother did.  He sought an interpretation of the trust's anti-inform and report provision, given other potentially applicable law.  He did not "contest" anything.  In Goodrich, the Court held that "seeking the 'guidance of a court in interpreting' a disputed provision of a will does not constitute contesting the will ' in a manner which would actuate a forfeiture clause.'"  Here, the Court holds that "[t]he same is true in trust law."

Can a settlor or testator prohibit beneficiaries from seeking interpretations?

Finally, the Court addressed another provision in the trust stating that a petition made in good faith and with the trustee's blessing could seek an interpretation of the trust without violating its no-contest clause.  The sister argued that, because she did object to her brother's suit, the inverse must be true, and his request for interpretation was out-of-bounds.

Although the Court notes that several courts have criticized efforts to prevent beneficiaries from seeking interpretations of wills and trusts, it doesn't reach the question here.  That is because, as described above, no-contest provisions are "strictly construed."  Nothing in the no-contest clause at issue in Hunter expressly prohibits a beneficiary from seeking an interpretation.  The Court will not read into the implications of the provision the sister relies upon to determine that such a request violates the trust's no-contest clause.

Three Takeaways.

There are three key takeaways from the Supreme Court's decision in Hunter v. Hunter.  First, a beneficiary under a will or trust can avoid the harsh consequences of a no-contest clause by filing a two-step, alternatively-pleaded complaint asking the court to determine, as a threshold matter, whether requesting certain substantive relief would violate the no-contest clause. 

Second, a beneficiary does not run afoul of an ordinary no-contest clause merely by seeking an interpretation.  However, the Court has yet to consider whether a settlor or testator can also foreclose interpretation suits by expressly prohibiting them, as well.

Third, estate and trust litigation is a complex area of law, with many nuanced rules and potential pitfalls.  Here at The Mottley Law Firm, we dedicate much of our practice to representing fiduciaries and beneficiaries in estate and trust disputes.  We understand the playing field in estate and trust cases.  If you or your loved ones need assistance with a matter involving an will, a trust, a power of attorney, or any similar issue, call The Mottley Law Firm at (804) 409-0876 to discuss your case today. 

Benjamin P. Kyber
Richmond Appellate Law Attorney Serving Virginia, Henrico County.
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