Does a Trust Protect You From a Lawsuit?
A gavel and a name plate with the engraving Lawsuit

Does a Trust Protect You From a Lawsuit?

If you have a trust, plan to create one or are the beneficiary of one, you’ll want to understand whether or not a trust can be sued. It’s not a simple yes/no, according to a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Can You Sue a Trust?” from Yahoo! Finance. For instance, a trust generally cannot be sued, but a trustee can.

Understanding when a lawsuit can be brought against a trust should be considered when creating an estate plan, a good reason to work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

A trust is a legal entity used to hold and manage assets on behalf of one or more beneficiaries. A trustee can be a person or business entity responsible for managing the trust and the assets it holds. Trusts can be revocable, meaning the person who created them (the grantor) can make changes, or irrevocable, meaning transfer of assets is permanent (for the most part).

Trusts are used to manage assets while the grantor is living and after they have died. There are many different types of trusts, from a Special Needs Trust (SNT) used to manage assets for a disabled person, or a CRT (Charitable Remainder Trust) used for charitable giving.

A trust cannot always protect the grantor or beneficiaries from litigation. If a person has debt and creditors want to be paid, they can sue a revocable trust, as you have not given up much in the way of control using this type of trust—you still directly own the assets in the trust!

Irrevocable trusts provide more protection. Once assets are in the trust, the grantor has given up control of the assets. However, if the trust was created mainly to protect assets from creditors, a court could determine the trust was created fraudulently, and rule against the grantor, leaving all of the assets in the trust vulnerable to creditor lawsuits.

Can you sue a trust directly? Generally, no, but you can sue the trustee of a trust. You can also sue beneficiaries of a trust.

Here’s an example. If you transfer a car into a revocable living trust and cause an accident leading to the death or serious injury of another driver, the driver or their family could sue the trust for damages indirectly, by suing you as the trustee.

Trustees are bound as fiduciaries to manage the trust assets as directed by the grantor and for the best interest of the beneficiaries. The trustee can be sued if someone, typically a beneficiary, believes the trustee is not carrying out their duties. A beneficiary might sue a trustee, if they were supposed to receive a certain amount of money at a specific time, but the trustee has not distributed the funds. This is known as a “breach of fiduciary duty.”

Trustees are also prevented from self-dealing or using trust assets for their own benefit. If a beneficiary believes a trustee is taking money from the trust for their own benefit, they can sue the trustee.

A trust can also be “contested,” which is different from suing. Contesting a trust occurs when someone believes the grantor was coerced or subjected to undue influence in creating the trust. It also happens if someone believes the trust or amendments to the trust were the result of elder financial abuse, or if it appears trust documents have been forged or fraudulently altered.

Before a trust can be contested, there needs to be a valid suspicion the trust is somehow in violation of your state’s estate planning laws. You also have to have legal standing to bring a claim. The court may or may not side with you, so there are no guarantees.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Nov. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Can You Sue a Trust?”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”