Key V. Tyler: Lessons in Family Harmony and Estate Planning

This article explores the Key v. Tyler case to highlight important lessons in estate planning and preventing family disputes. When a mother's trust was contested by her daughters, it sparked a long legal battle, demonstrating the complexities of probate litigation. Despite efforts to create a clear and binding no-contest clause, the family still faced years of courtroom conflicts.

One common question we hear when discussing probate litigation is, “How can I ensure my family doesn’t fight over my property after I’m gone?” The truth is, it’s challenging to guarantee complete harmony. However, careful planning can help minimize conflicts.

Imagine you’re a fantastic estate planner, creating strong legal documents that make it clear who gets what. You might even include a no-contest clause, which discourages anyone from challenging the will or trust by threatening disinheritance. This sounds like a perfect solution, right?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Even the best-laid plans can run into unexpected problems, as demonstrated by the Key v. Tyler case.

The Key v. Tyler Case

In this case, a mother’s trust was amended in 2007, influenced by one of her daughters, Elizabeth Tyler. Elizabeth’s sister, Sarah Key, believed the amendment was unfair and asked the probate court to declare it invalid. The court agreed with Sarah, ruling that Elizabeth’s actions constituted a challenge to the original trust. This meant Elizabeth risked being disinherited under the no-contest clause included in the original trust.

The legal battle didn’t end there. The sisters then argued over what parts of the inheritance Elizabeth would lose. Elizabeth pointed out that the 2003 amendment to the trust, which was valid, did not include a no-contest clause. She argued that while she might lose the inheritance from the original trust, she should still receive what was promised in the 2003 amendment.

California law is strict about what can trigger a no-contest clause. It only applies if someone challenges the specific document containing that clause. Since Elizabeth contested the original trust (which had the clause), she faced disinheritance from all parts of the trust.

What Does This Mean for Families?

The no-contest clause in this case was particularly broad, meaning a person who challenged the trust could lose all their inheritance under that trust, not just the parts related to the document with the clause. So, while the no-contest clause didn’t prevent all conflicts, it ultimately ensured the trust would be followed as intended.

However, the story isn’t over yet. The Court of Appeal sent the case back to the probate court for further proceedings. This means the legal battle continues, highlighting how complex estate planning can be.


While it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of family disputes over inheritance, working with a skilled estate planner and creating clear, comprehensive documents can help reduce conflicts. No-contest clauses can be a useful tool, but they’re not foolproof. Always be prepared for the unexpected and seek professional advice to navigate the complexities of estate planning.

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