In Estate of Boyar, the Supreme Court of Illinois had an opportunity to address an important question of Illinois trust law:  whether the “doctrine of election” applicable to will contests should be extended to challenges to amendments to living trusts in cases where the trust serves the same purpose as a will.  The trial court decided it did.  The Illinois appellate court also decided it did.  The Illinois Supreme Court, however, decided that there was no reason for the lower courts to address whether the doctrine of election should be extended to living trusts because that doctrine couldn’t be invoked under the circumstances present in the case.  Nevertheless, we get some good insight into when the doctrine of election could come into play in whatever contexts it might be applicable.

First, some quick facts.

Robert E. Boyar’s will distributed all of his property to a trust for the benefit of his five children and his grandchildren. Under the trust, one son (Robert A. Boyar) and a bank were to be co-trustees. The trust, however, also provided that a trustee could be removed by a majority of the beneficiaries. Shortly before his death, Robert E. Boyar amended his trust to name a different trustee and to provide that he would not be subject to removal by any of the other trust beneficiaries. The trust also provided that certain personal property should be divided among the children pursuant to their own agreement, which the children started to do shortly after Robert E. Boyar’s death.

Several months after Robert E. Boyar’s death, the new trustee informed Robert A. Boyer of the trust amendment and demanded a personal property itemization. Robert A. Boyar contended that, while the amendment didn’t change the substantive dispositions to be made by the trust, it was improperly orchestrated by the new trustee to gain control of the trust and to collect trustee fees.

Robert A. Boyar filed an action challenging the validity of the amendment on the grounds of undue influence and lack of capacity. The trial court dismissed the petition on the grounds that, because Robert A. Boyar accepted some of Robert E. Boyar’s personal property under the terms of the trust, he didn’t have the right to challenge the amended trust provision. In other words, the trial court applied the doctrine of election.

With that background, now, let’s get a quick refresher on the doctrine of election. In the context of wills, it means that “once a beneficiary under a will has accepted a benefit granted by the will, he will be estopped from asserting any claim contrary to the validity of the will.” Put differently, “[w]hen a person is presented with the choice between two inconsistent or alternative claims to property devised by the testator and elects to accept benefits pursuant to the provisions of the will, that person will then normally be estopped from challenging the will or any part of it.” The lower courts extended this doctrine to the trust.

The Illinois Supreme Court, however, decided that the doctrine of election shouldn’t have been considered by the lower courts. The reason was that Robert A. Boyar’s challenge was not to the distribution provision. He did not make a choice between accepting the property or challenging the trust. Thus, he could take under the distribution provision and still challenge the amendment changing the trustees.