What is Undue Influence in Estate Planning?

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14th Apr 2015

It is unfortunate, but sometimes people manipulate those that are vulnerable in some way and especially dependent on others. Sometimes this manipulation may come in the form of an individual attempting to take advantage of someone and manipulate legal documents, such as their will or trust, into their favor against the true wishes of the individual if they had the mental or physical capacity to maintain control. In estate planning, through matters involving wills and trusts, this matter is referred to as undue influence.
Undue influence can be a nightmare on many levels. It is usually a very uncomfortable experience for the person being manipulated, who may know on some level they are being taken advantage of or may be frequently confused by the decisions they are lead to make. The experience is hard on the family as well, particularly following the passing of the family member if it appears the will or trust was clearly manipulated beyond what that person truly would have wanted.
Unfortunately, sometimes these matters are not discovered until after the passing of the person in question, as the individual attempting to defraud them will usually keep their presence or influence unknown until later. Undue influence is best stopped while it is happening, but it can be possible to legally change the validity of a will or trust later if unlawful behavior can be proved.
Due to the capacity requirements for wills versus trusts, generally wills are much more susceptible to undue influence than trusts. While both documents require the individual preparing the legal documents to be of “sound mind”, an individual can be found incapable of completing a trust but still capable of completing a will. Wills only require the individual to understand they are completing a will, understand the assets involved, and understand the relationship with the person or people they are setting as their beneficiary or beneficiaries. Trusts require a more extensive knowledge of their options, the future impact of their decisions, and an overall more complex understanding of what they are doing.
What is Considered Undue Influence, and How Do You Prove It?

As undue influence will usually be claimed in cases involving a will, an individual who suspects undue influence must bring a will contest in probate court following the will maker’s passing. This can be done even if there is not a regular probate court proceeding to probate the will and distribute the assets. As trusts are generally used to avoid probate rather than wills, usually there will be some kind of probate court proceeding if a will is involved.
The relative or individual who may have been impacted by the undue influence in addition to the deceased must prove certain things in court.
They must prove:
  • The will is written in a way that doesn’t make sense given the deceased person’s relationship with whomever the assets were transferred to, versus their relationship with the person or people who were left out
  • The deceased was particularly dependent on or placed a substantial level of trust in the person who exerted influence and benefited from the will
  • The individual who exerted influence took advantage of the deceased for their own benefit and in essence rewrote the will like it was their own
  • Some kind of mental or physical incapacity left the victim susceptible to this unwanted influence

It’s important to understand that simply being influenced by another person does not render a will invalid. Just because the individual leaving behind the will relied heavily on a person providing care and may have been influenced does not mean this is a valid grounds for legally contesting the validity of the will. The key factor that makes or breaks the case is whether or not the deceased was manipulated into the version of the will that was drafted or if it still remained truly their own decision.
Preventing Undue Influence

Potential situations where wills are called into question and it is particularly difficult to determine whether undue influence occurred or not are most likely the cause of such estate planning law regulations as testamentary capacity and contractual capacity. Testamentary capacity is the minimum requirements for an individual to complete a will. Contractual capacity is the minimum requirements for an individual to complete a trust. Because contractual capacity is significantly higher than testamentary capacity, wills are called into question far more commonly than trusts are. In any case, both capacity regulations are in place to prevent undue influence from occurring in the first place.
Regardless of the legal requirements in place to form a will or trust, if you feel a loved one involved in some kind of estate planning is a victim of undue influence, it is important to consult with an attorney sooner rather than later. In some cases, it may be a matter that may require law enforcement involvement. It is not unusual for cases involving undue influence to also involve criminal matters such as elderly abuse.
If you suspect undue influence, taking steps immediately might not just protect your inheritance, but also the very life of your loved one.

Whether you suspect undue influence early on or following the passing of a loved one, it is important to hire an attorney to ensure that you exercise not just your rights, but also the rights of your loved one.
Dwight Tompkins is an estate planning attorney with years of experience in these and other estate planning matters and is happy to assist you with your legal questions regarding undue influence and other matters.  

For questions, or to schedule a consultation, call the office today at 714 385 0044.

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