Are No-Contest Clauses Valid In Ohio Wills?

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No-contest or in-terrorem clauses in wills are valid under Ohio law.  Ohio courts generally strictly enforce no-contest clauses. Because no-contest clauses are valid in Ohio, any person considering contesting a will must seriously consider whether the risk is worth the reward.

What Is a No-Contest Clause Under Ohio Law?

A no-contest clause creates a penalty for anyone who brings a will contest action or challenges the decedent’s estate plan.  Most commonly, a no-contest clause will provide that anyone who challenges the testator’s estate plan will be totally disinherited for doing so.

Some states, like Florida, do not uphold no-contest clauses.  Even if a testator puts a no-contest clause in their last will, Florida courts do not recognize them, and anyone with standing to challenge a will can do so without the penalty of being disinherited under the document they are challenging.

What Is the Purpose Of a No-Contest Clause Under Ohio Law?

A no-contest clause can achieve several purposes in Ohio estate law.

First, a no-contest clause can prioritize the testator’s intent.  When a testator includes a no-contest clause, he is intending to condition the gifts to the beneficiaries based on them not attempting to challenge the will.

Second, no-contest clauses discourage baseless or vexatious litigation.  A will contestant must really believe strongly in their case, and have the facts to back it up, to risk losing everything given to them in the will for the chance to get more.

Third, a no-contest or in-terrorem clause in Ohio can reduce family animosity by discouraging will contests.  Pursuit of a will contest between family members can forever damage relationships.

The Ohio Supreme Court: Bradford v. Bradford

Bradford v. Bradford is an 1869 Ohio Supreme Court decision that was one of the first rulings in the country on the validity of a no-contest clause.

In Bradford, the will left $600 to William Bradford and contained the following clause:

Now, if any of my heirs is dissatisfied and goes to law to break this will, then my will is and I direct that they shall have no part of my estate, and I debar them from any part of my estate whatever.

William brought an unsuccessful action to contest the Ohio will.  The executor brought an action to construe the will, asking the court to determine the effect of this no-contest in terrorem clause.  The Ohio court held that the no-contest clause was valid, and that as a result, William had forfeited his bequest under the will.

The court stated:

In regard to both [devises of realty and bequests of personalty], it is the duty of the courts to carry out the intention of the testator, unless that intention be contrary to the policy of the law. No considerations of public policy require that an heir should contest the doubtful questions of fact or of law upon which the validity of a devise or a bequest may depend. The determination of such questions ordinarily affects only the interests of the parties to the controversy …. Hence we assume that in this country, any such condition, which is reasonable,-as one against disputing one’s will surely is, as nothing can be more in conformity to good policy than to prevent litigation,-will be held binding and valid.

Is There a Good Faith Exception To No-Contest Clauses in Ohio?

Although there has been much debate about enacting a good-faith exception which would allow a beneficiary to challenge the will in good faith when there are grounds to do so without the risk of losing their inheritance, no such exception exists under Ohio law.  Courts have reasoned that a good faith exception would destroy the no-contest rule itself.

As a practical matter, however, most people who wish to challenge a will have been completely disinherited (or in some cases are given $1, in a form of old-school drafting).  So the practical effect of Ohio’s enforcement of no-contest clauses is less than meets the eye.