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Should There Be An In Terrorem Clause in Your Will or Trust?

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In terrorem provision

AUGUST 3, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 49

You would like to make sure that your children get along after you are no longer around to tell them to behave, wouldn’t you? Although you may not anticipate any disagreements, you know that money can change relationships, and you have seen how the death of a parent can interfere with sibling relationships. Perhaps you have considered including a “no-contest” provision in your will or trust, and you wonder: Would that help maintain family harmony?

The name lawyers usually apply to such no-contest provisions is revealing. We call them “in terrorem” clauses — meaning that they are intended to terrorize anyone who would otherwise receive a share of the estate from filing any contests. But do they actually work? They can, but they seldom do. Why not?

The primary reason is simple. Say your plan is to leave everything to your three children, in equal shares. Since that is exactly what would happen if you had no will (or trust — in terrorem provisions can be used in trusts, too), there is no incentive for any of them to contest your estate plan anyway. No one else would receive anything even if your documents were successfully challenged, so there is simply no need to include a no-contest clause.

Maybe your plan is different. Say one of your children has already received a significant share of your property, or you disapprove of his or her life choices. You want to disinherit that child, and you want to make sure he or she does not contest your plan. In this situation the in terrorem provision is not going to make much difference — since the disinherited child receives nothing anyway, providing that they will be disinherited if they contest the documents is not much of a deterrent.

All right. Let’s say you really want to make the point. You agree to leave a small share of your estate — perhaps a few thousand dollars — to the disfavored child, and then include an in terrorem provision. Will this work?

It might. Obviously, the beneficiary who is slated to receive something but who will lose it for contesting will have to think twice about filing any objections. You should know, however, that Arizona law (like the law of a number of other states) limits the effectiveness of the provision. If your disgruntled heir has “probable cause” to file an objection — even if he or she is ultimately unsuccessful — the in terrorem provision will not be enforced. (For one illustration of how this might work, consider the 2000 Arizona Supreme Court case of Matter of Shumway, which we described in an “Editor’s Note” to our 1999 article on the Court of Appeals decision in the same case.)

We do not include many no-contest clauses in wills and trusts we draft for our clients. They probably do no harm, except that they would leave our clients with a false sense that they had protected against family conflicts. If conflict avoidance is important to you, we need to come up with a better plan — like including a requirement that any contest be submitted to arbitration or mediation. We can discuss specific ideas for your particular situation.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.