Contesting a trust in New York begins with your attorney filing a petition with the court. The petition will list all of the potential problems with the trust and will ask the court to set aside the trust. This filing will set your will contest in motion.
If you are contesting a trust in New York, your petition would typically allege that the person who made the trust did not have the mental capacity to make the trust and was unduly influenced into making it. In some cases, you would also allege that the person making the trust was defrauded into making it or was forced into making it. You can even try to prove that the trust is a forgery, or that it was not made correctly.
This is pretty much all you need to know to proceed, and your attorney can explain the rest, depending on your particular case.
This next part will get a little technical, but if you are interested in the way trust contests work and would like to dip your foot in the water and evaluate your own case before you spend money on an attorney, here is a basic analysis we typically apply to contesting a trust in New York.
In the petition to contest the trust, your attorney will allege the grounds for the trust contest. The grounds you need to bring up for contesting a trust in New York depend on whether the trust is revocable or irrevocable.
Because New York courts view revocable trusts as will substitutes, they tend to apply the same standards as wills when revocable trusts are contested. The grounds for a revocable trust contest are as follows:
Lack of capacity. People who were elderly, weak or infirm are more likely to be shown to lack the capacity to make a trust in New York. The possibility of showing incapacity is greater for a decedent who was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s or Dementia, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and who was under the influence of mind-altering medication. Here is more about lack of capacity. To overturn a trust based on lack of capacity, the person contesting the trust must show that the trust maker did not understand the following:
Undue influence. To overturn a trust based on undue influence, the person contesting the trust has to show that the deceased was influenced into making the trust. When the trust beneficiary is in a relationship of confidence with the trust maker and the trust beneficiary benefitted from that relationship in the trust, the court can infer that the trust beneficiary must have influenced the trust maker. It would be up to the trust beneficiary who is inferred to have unduly influenced the trust maker to show that the inference is wrong and no undue influence took place.
To show that the trust maker did not have the capacity to make a trust, the challenger of an irrevocable trust in New York will have to show that the trust maker did not have the capacity to understand what a contract is and the consequences of the contract. To have consent to enter into the trust, the trust maker must have had the mental capacity to understand what the trust does, and must have acted voluntarily, without threats of force.
Advantages for the defender of the irrevocable trust. A trust contest based on undue influence would not be as effective in an irrevocable trust, because undue influence tends not to be considered in contract law.
Advantages for the person contesting the irrevocable trust. A trust contest based on mental incapacity could be slightly more effective in an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts tend to be more complicated and harder to understand. Even their element of irrevocability itself is something that is hard to process for a person with diminished capacity.
Less capacity is required to make a will than is required to execute other legal documents or contracts (see Matter of Coddington, 281 App Div 143 , affd 307 NY 181 ). Using this logic, it is possible that an irrevocable trust requires a little more capacity than a revocable trust.
It is not as easy as one would think to describe how a trust contest works in New York, because our law involving trust contests is currently in flux. A legislative advisory committee and bar groups have attempted to develop a unified approach to trust contests, and that attempt has failed. The statutory law is scarce in its guidance, and court cases have been contradictory at times. Courts decide trust contests by relying on a mixture of will contest and contract law, with a wide difference of opinion abounding.
In our opinion, contesting a trust is best done in Surrogate’s Court. A trust contest can be brought either in the Supreme Court (New York name for a regular court) or the Surrogate’s Court, the Court dealing with matters of the dead. We bring usually bring our trust contests in the Surrogate’s Court, for two reasons. First, the surrogate’s court is more likely to apply the will challenge standard, and we think that it’s a more favorable standard to the trust challenger. And second, because a trust challenge deals with the matter for the deceased, there’s a chance that the attorney defending the trust may try to transfer it to the Surrogate’s Court anyway, causing an unneeded delay in trust litigation.
Watch out for hidden trusts. One of the confusing things about trust contests is knowing whether there is a trust in the first place. New York is a state that allows ultra-private trusts. For example, Florida requires a trustee to notify potential beneficiaries of the existence of a trust upon the death of the maker of the trust. Not so in New York. When a person dies in New York and leaves a will, the executor probating the will has an obligation to notify the relatives of the deceased person, even if they are not in the will. Not so with a trust. A person can die and his relatives may never even find out that the deceased left a trust that cut them out of their inheritance. This is something to keep in mind when figuring out how to contest a trust in New York. If your relative died and it looks like they have no inheritance to leave to you, it may be possible that they’ve made a trust and have cut you out of it (or have simply transferred their property to someone else before they died).
When you don’t know if your relative made a trust, you can’t challenge the trust, since you don’t know if one exists yet. What we do for our clients is we open up an estate proceeding and appoint them as the administrator of the estate. That gives them the official New York certificate with the power to request information from banks, financial institutions and other entities. If our client finds that the assets of their deceased relative were transferred to a trust, our client can then bring a trust contest to try to claw those assets back into their deceased relative’s estate.
If you think that your loved one was taken advantage of when making a “trust” and you would like information about contesting a trust, we at the Law Offices of Albert Goodwin are here for you. We have offices in New York City, Brooklyn, NY and Queens, NY. You can send us an email at [email protected] or call us at 212-233-1233.