If you are the beneficiary of an estate and want a bigger piece of the pie, it would be nice to be able to rewrite the document in your favor, saying that’s what the deceased really wanted.  Not surprisingly, a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, Urick v. Urick, affirms that you can’t do that.

Allyne Urick apparently liked to tinker with the trust she had her attorney draw up to distribute her estate after she passed away.

In March of 2013 Allyne signed a trust document that named her daughter, Dana Urick, as successor trustee. It established a “charitable remainder trust.”

Upon Allyne’s death, annuity payments would go to Dana, her brother Willis, and Dana’s son Trentyn. When the annuity eventually terminated, the remainder would go to a Massachusetts prep school, Phillips Academy, in memory of Allyne’s late husband.

Just ten months later, in January of 2014, Allyne drafted a handwritten note addressed “to whom it may concern,” saying, “I hereby delete my son Willis” from the trust.

Seven months after that, in August of 2014, Allyne executed an “Amendment and Full Restatement” of the March, 2013 trust. It again said annuity payments would go to Dana, Willis and Trentyn, with the remainder to the school.

The trust contained a “no-contest clause”; if any beneficiary contested any aspect of the trust or attempted to set it aside, that beneficiary would be barred from receiving any proceeds.

Allyne died in August of 2015, and Dana assumed the role of trustee. The following February, Dana filed a petition with the probate court to “reform” or rewrite the trust, on the grounds that its terms had been misrepresented by the attorney who drafted it, and that Allyne had signed it in the mistaken belief that it represented her intent.

Dana wanted the principal to be distributed equally to her and her son Trentyn. She filed the petition as a beneficiary of the trust, not as its trustee.

Willis and Phillips Academy objected to Dana’s request. Willis also said Dana’s petition violated the “no-contest” clause, and thus disallowed her from receiving proceeds from the trust.

Dana responded by filing an anti-SLAPP motion. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, meaning a meritless lawsuit filed solely with the intent to chill free speech.

California’s anti-SLAPP law allows the court to dismiss a lawsuit it determines has no real likelihood of prevailing and is aimed only at preventing someone from exercising their First Amendment rights, including the right to file a lawsuit.

Dana argued that her attempt to reform the trust was not a direct contest, since she was acting as a trustee, not a beneficiary, so Willis could not prevail on the merits and therefore his petition should be thrown out.

Willis responded that Dana’s own filings indicated she was acting as a beneficiary, not as a trustee, and that she was directly contesting the trust because she was attempting to disinherit her brother and the school.

The lower court agreed with Dana. It threw out Willis’ objection, and awarded Dana nearly $25,000 in costs. Willis appealed.

Willis argued that the lower court should have denied the anti-SLAPP motion because he had established a reasonable probability that he would prevail at trial.

The appellate court agreed with Willis, holding that there was ample evidence that Dana had filed her petition to reform the trust as a beneficiary of the trust, not as a trustee.

Dana’s goal of disinheriting her brother and the school, the court noted, made the distribution of assets far more lucrative to her and her son. This was “consistent with the interests of Dana as a beneficiary, not with her fiduciary duties as a trustee.”

Thus it was reasonable for Willis to argue that she was contesting the trust, triggering the no-contest clause.

The higher court sent the case back to the probate court with instructions to strike the anti-SLAPP order and the award of fees to Dana. It awarded Willis his costs on appeal.

The lesson here is for trustees who are also beneficiaries to think twice before going to court to cut out other beneficiaries. The "no contest" clause may cut the petitioning trustees from the trust.

By Lynda I. Chung