Yes, no-contest clauses (sometimes called in terrorem clauses, forfeiture clauses, or penalty clauses) are valid in wills under Pennsylvania law.
What Is a No-Contest Clause Under Pennsylvania Law?
An in terrorem clause, also known as a no-contest clause under Pennsylvania law, is a clause that many testator put into a will that provides that if any beneficiary contests the will, in whole or in part, that the beneficiary forfeits any gift that the beneficiary would otherwise receive under the terms of the will.
In Pennsylvania, 20 Pa. C.S. § 2521 governs no-contest clauses and states:
A provision in a will or trust purporting to penalize an interested person for contesting the will or trust or instituting other proceedings relating to the estate or trust is unenforceable if probable cause exists for instituting proceedings.
Therefore, a no-contest clause is enforceable under Pennsylvania law unless probable cause exists for the challenge to the will or trust.
What Is Probable Cause Under Pennsylvania’s No-Contest Clause Statute?
Generally, probable cause has been defined as a reasonable ground of suspicion supported by circumstances sufficient to warrant a belief that some wrongdoing has occurred.
Pennsylvania has created the probable cause exception to encourage people who have good faith challenges to a will to come forward, instead of being intimidated into not pursuing a will contest.
In In re Friend’s Estate, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated:
Whether there was probablis causa litigandi must, in every case, be for the court distributing the estate of the testator; and when it is clear that there was such cause the same decree ought to be made that was made here. If it is not clear, or if it is doubtful whether there was probable cause, the will of the testator should be regarded as supreme, and his direction to forfeit carried out. A disappointed beneficiary under a will is not to be encouraged to make a contest to set it aside, and when he does so, in the face of notice from the testator that he shall have nothing if he attempts to strike down his provisions, he must understand the imminent risks he runs.
In In re Estate of Simpson, 595, A. 2d 94 (Pa. Super. 1991), the Court applied the probable cause standard to a will contestant.
In Simpson, the trial court concluded that the contestant lacked probable cause to contest the will and only did so for vindictive reasons. The trial court ordered that his share be forfeited. The appellate court agreed, stating:
The record indicates that for the two year period preceding testatrix’s death, James Simpson lived in Texas and Michigan. During that period he had no opportunity to observe proponent exercise any undue influence over testatrix. Any notions that James had regarding undue influence were the product of conversations with his brother and sister. James merely suspected that Judy Simpson Campbell must have exercised undue influence over testatrix, since he could fathom no other reason why his grandmother would change her will. However, James had no evidence to substantiate these suspicions. By his own testimony James admitted that he had no knowledge of Judy Simpson Campbell doing anything wrong, but rather he brought the contest because he did not get what he wanted under the will. Yet, James proceeded with this action in an attempt to thwart the intentions of testatrix and therefore must now suffer the consequences. Mere unsubstantiated suspicions certainly can not rise to the level of probable cause so as to avoid the imposition of the forfeiture clause.
Can a No-Contest Clause Be Enforced Against People Who Assisted The Will Contestant?
In Simpson, the Pennsylvania court also addressed wither people that allegedly conspired with and assisted the will contestant ought to have the no-contest clause in the will enforced against them.
The court looked to various jurisdictions, and determined that the better reasoned approach was to impose a forfeiture clause against those beneficiaries who aid in the will contest, even if they are not nominally parties to the contest. The court reasoned that to hold otherwise would be to exalt form over substance, and that a collaborative effort between beneficiaries and the person contesting the will should result in a forfeiture of all of the bequests.
The court concluded that such a rule was beneficial for two reasons:
First, the rule honors the idea that the will is to be construed so as to promote the intentions of the testator. Second, the rule promotes the favorable public policy of limiting costly, time-consuming litigation against the estate when such litigation is not founded upon probable cause but rather upon disappointment over amount received.
A beneficiary of a Pennsylvania decedent’s estate should seek out the assistance of Pennsylvania probate counsel to determine if probable cause exists to challenge a will in the face of a no-contest clause.