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Could a penalty clause lead to disinheritance in probate court?

On Behalf of | Jun 15, 2024 | Probate |

A person who is creating an estate plan or will is a testator. Testators largely have control over the terms of their wills and other documents. Although the law does limit testator actions in some ways, such as giving spouses protection from disinheritance, the testator can potentially set whatever terms they’d like in a will and other estate planning documents.

The will someone leaves behind when they die largely determines what happens during estate administration. Their family members may have to assume a position of authority based on the wishes a testator included in a will. What they inherit also depends on the documents the testator drafts.

Sometimes, families feel uncertain about the validity of the documents. There may be concerns about undue influence or a testator’s declining cognitive abilities in their last years of life. Families sometimes contest wills in probate court as a means of upholding someone’s true wishes. If there is a penalty clause in a Florida will, could litigation endanger someone’s inheritance?

Florida does not enforce penalty clauses

A penalty clause is a special inclusion in a will that eliminates the inheritance of someone who brings unnecessary litigation against the estate plan. Most states enforce penalty or no-contest clauses in some circumstances. If someone files a lawsuit challenging the documents a testator makes, the courts may eventually strip them of their inheritance rights because of that clause.

Florida is unique in that state statutes outright prohibit the enforcement of penalty clauses. People can go to court out of concern for the terms included in estate planning documents without any risk of losing their inheritances. That risk is a powerful deterrent against misconduct and unnecessary litigation.

The inclusion of a no-contest clause does not invalidate a will. However, the courts do not enforce such clauses by stripping someone of their inheritance if they initiate probate litigation. Penalty clauses serve only as a deterrent in Florida because of the unique probate statutes in the Sunshine State. That being said, probate litigation can diminish the value of an estate and could potentially reduce what someone eventually inherits.

Pursuing a will contest in probate court requires careful planning and evaluating whether there are viable grounds for litigation. Those with an interest in an estate may need help reviewing relevant documents to determine the best options available to them.