Under direct benefits estoppel (or the doctrine of election), a beneficiary must choose: either challenge the will (or trust) or accept the benefits provided under that instrument. You can’t have it both ways, meaning you can’t both take benefits under an instrument and challenge that same instrument’s validity. But how far can a fiduciary extend this defense?
In Harrison v. Harrison (unpublished Rule 23 order), an Illinois appellate court drew a line in the sand. While direct benefits estoppel may apply to direct challenges to the validity of a will, it will not apply to actions construing a will. The appellate court ruled that, even if a litigant accepts benefits under a will, he is not necessarily estopped from arguing that certain provisions of the will are void as against public policy and thus invalid. Thus, although the construction of a will may ultimately lead to the invalidation of certain provisions, asking a court to construe a will is not barred merely by receiving benefits under that will.