How the Doctrine of Election Affects a Beneficiary’s Ability to Contest a Will

The doctrine of election is a legal principle that prohibits beneficiaries from challenging the terms of a will if they have already chosen to receive benefits under the same provisions. Determining when this doctrine is triggered can be difficult, so if you need help determining whether this theory could bar your own attempts to contest a will, it is important to consult with an experienced contested estates lawyer who can advise you.

Triggering the Doctrine of Election

The State Supreme Court has confirmed the doctrine of election has two main purposes, including:

● To honor the intent of testators; and
● To protect the rights of any other heirs who could benefit from the implementation of the will.

However, these purposes can only be fulfilled if the doctrine of election is properly triggered, which occurs when:

    ● A person is entitled to two different benefits;
    ● The testator didn’t intend the beneficiary receive both benefits; and
    ● Allowing the beneficiary in question to collect both benefits would be inequitable to other beneficiaries who also have claims on the same fund, property, or asset.

Essentially, this doctrine is triggered when a beneficiary attempts to accept benefits conferred by a will, while simultaneously asserting a claim that is contrary to its terms or validity. When a court determines this doctrine applies, the beneficiary in question will be barred from contesting the will.

Exceptions to the Application of the Doctrine of Election

Over the years, Illinois courts have carved out a few exceptions to the doctrine of election. For example, this doctrine is only applicable when the beneficiary’s acceptance of a bequest under the terms of a will was made with full knowledge of the important circumstances and facts of the situation, including information about:

    ● The contents of the will; and
    ● The circumstances surrounding its execution.

It’s also important to note that just because a beneficiary accepts a benefit under a will does not mean that he/she will be barred from questioning any of the document’s terms that are contrary to public policy or the law. Finally, some state courts are willing to accept a third exception to this doctrine, under which it will not apply if:

    ● A beneficiary temporarily accepted a bequest under the terms of a will;
    ● The temporary acceptance doesn’t prejudice the rights of other beneficiaries; and
    ● The beneficiary offers to return the property before filing the will contest.

Unless one of these three exceptions exist, most lower courts tend to use a strict approach when it comes to this doctrine, namely that if a person accepts property that is provided in a will, he/she cannot contest any portion of that document. Instead, beneficiaries must either accept or reject the will in its entirety and cannot just pick and choose which of the terms they find most beneficial.

Dedicated Glenview Contested Estates Attorneys

For help determining whether the doctrine of election will impede your own ability to contest a will, please call the experienced Glenview contested estates lawyers at Orlowsky & Wilson, Ltd. Attorneys at Law. We can be reached at 847-325-5559, or via online message.

Updated as of July 2019
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