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Undue Influence and Wills

Undue Influence in Estate Planning

Undue influence in estate planning occurs when an individual exerts excessive pressure on the testator, manipulating them into leaving assets to the influencer in their will. This influence often stems from a special or confidential relationship. Examples include those between a caretaker, attorney, friend, or family member who exploits their position of trust for personal gain. Undue influence goes beyond persuasion; it involves coercion or intimidation tactics, impacting the testator’s decision-making process.

In this article, we will explore the signs of undue influence, focusing on instances involving family members or caretakers. We will provide samples to help readers recognize potential red flags in estate planning scenarios. Understanding these signs is crucial for safeguarding the integrity of the estate planning process and protecting vulnerable individuals from exploitation.

How Can I Prove Undue Influence in Estate Planning?

People contesting a will based on undue influence must present evidence to the probate court, demonstrating that the will does not accurately reflect the testator’s true intentions. Key factors include:

  1. Unexpected distribution of property without a reasonable explanation.
  2. Testator’s vulnerability due to age, health, or mental capacity.
  3. A special or confidential relationship with the influencer.
  4. Exploitation of the relationship to pressure or manipulate the testator.
  5. The influencer benefiting from the will due to their undue influence.

Indicators of Undue Influence

Signs may include secretive changes to the will, persuasion of the testator to favor the influencer, and the influencer dominating interactions with estate planning professionals. The influencer might take a more active role in drafting the will or assume control over the testator’s life.

Can a Will Be Invalidated Due to Undue Influence?

Yes, a will can be invalidated if it is proven. Factors considered in determining undue influence include the circumstances of drafting, the testator’s age or mental state, and whether the influencer arranged witnesses or excluded certain beneficiaries.

Remedies for Undue Influence

If a will is successfully challenged, the court may declare it invalid. If there’s a prior valid will, that version might be revived. In the absence of a valid earlier will, property distribution follows intestacy laws. The court may also strike out the part benefiting the influencer, redistributing that portion based on intestacy laws.

Penalties for the Influencer

Penalties for the influencer found guilty of will depend on state laws. Invalidation of the will is a common consequence, resulting in the loss of any property or inheritance the influencer would have received. Additionally, the court may impose punitive damages or other penalties. Criminal charges may apply for fraudulent conduct or financial exploitation.

Do I Need to Hire an Attorney?

Contesting a will for undue influence is complex.  It’s advisable to seek the assistance of an experienced probate attorney.  distribution of assets after someone passes away.

Here’s why you might want to consider a probate attorney:

  1. Expertise in Probate Law:

    • Probate attorneys are well-versed in the laws and procedures related to the administration of estates. They understand the legal nuances of probate court and can guide you through the specific processes involved.
  2. Will Contests and Undue Influence:

    • Probate attorneys often handle cases involving will contests, disputes, and allegations of undue influence. They have experience navigating the legal complexities associated with challenging or defending a will.
  3. Court Proceedings:

    • If the situation escalates to court proceedings, a probate attorney can represent you effectively in probate court. They understand the rules and requirements of the court, ensuring that your case is presented professionally.
  4. Asset Distribution:

    • Probate attorneys can assist in ensuring that the deceased person’s assets are distributed according to their wishes or applicable laws. They can help navigate any legal challenges that may arise during this process.

Probate attorneys are better equipped to handle situations involving the administration of estates.  Probate attorneys specialize in distribution, disputes, and allegations of undue influence after the individual has passed away.

What Happens if Undue Influence is Proven?

If undue influence is proven, the court may declare the will invalid. Distribution of assets will then follow intestacy laws. The court may void benefits going to the influencer, leaving the rest of the will intact.

Probate Proceedings:

In a probate court, Emily would present her case, providing evidence and witnesses to support her claim of undue influence. The court would then evaluate the circumstances and determine the validity of the will and the extent of Susan’s influence.

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Sample of Undue Influence from Family Member/s

Let’s consider an example involving two sisters, Susan and Emily:

Background:

Susan and Emily have had a strained relationship for many years, often disagreeing on various matters. Their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, are elderly and in declining health.

Undue Influence Scenario:

Emily states that Susan, who has always sought control and dominance in the family, decides to exclude Emily from their parents’ affairs and estate planning. Susan begins by blocking Emily’s calls to their parents, limiting Emily’s direct communication with them. Susan also takes on the role of managing their parents’ emails and scrutinizes any communication from Emily.

Isolation Tactics:

Susan isolates Mr. and Mrs. Johnson from Emily by controlling their access to information and limiting communication channels. This isolation is a key element of undue influence, as it prevents the parents from making independent and informed decisions.

Coercive Control:

Susan may use emotional tactics, coercion, or manipulation to sway her parents’ decisions in her favor. She might exaggerate conflicts with Emily, portraying her as a negative influence on the family, and present herself as the more responsible and caring daughter.

Influence on Estate Planning:

When it comes to estate planning, Susan persuades her parents to exclude Emily from the will, inheritances, or important decision-making processes. Susan may convince them to appoint her as the primary decision-maker or executor, giving her significant control over the distribution of assets.

Blocking Access to Information:

Susan continues to control access to information, preventing Emily from knowing the details of their parents’ financial affairs, healthcare decisions, or the terms of the will.

Legal Implications:

If Emily becomes aware of these tactics, she may choose to challenge the will in probate court, alleging undue influence. She would need to gather evidence of Susan’s actions, the isolation tactics employed, and any coercive control exercised over their parents.

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Sample of Undue Influence from a Caretaker

Undue influence from a caretaker in the context of estate planning occurs when the caretaker, who holds a position of trust and influence over an elderly or vulnerable person, manipulates or coerces them into making changes to their will that primarily benefit the caretaker. Detecting undue influence from a caretaker involves recognizing certain signs and behaviors. Here are some indicators:

    1. Isolation of the Elderly Person:

      • The caretaker may intentionally isolate the elderly person from family and friends, making them more dependent on the caretaker for companionship and support.
    2. Controlling Access:

      • Undue influence may involve the caretaker controlling access to the elderly person, restricting communication with others and closely monitoring interactions.
    3. Financial Control:

      • The caretaker may gain control over the elderly person’s financial affairs, making decisions on their behalf and possibly mismanaging or exploiting their assets.
    4. Pressuring for Changes in the Will:

      • The caretaker may exert pressure on the elderly person to make changes to their will, such as leaving a significant portion of their estate to the caretaker or modifying beneficiaries in a way that benefits the caretaker.
    5. Encouraging Dependency:

      • Undue influence involves fostering a sense of dependency in the elderly person, making them believe they rely heavily on the caretaker for their well-being.
    6. Manipulative Behavior:

      • The caretaker may engage in manipulative behavior, such as emotional manipulation, threats, or intimidation, to influence the elderly person’s decisions regarding their estate.
    7. Undue Involvement in Legal and Financial Matters:

      • The caretaker might take an unusually active role in the elderly person’s legal and financial affairs, including accompanying them to meetings with attorneys, drafting legal documents, and influencing decisions.
    8. Sudden and Unexplained Changes in the Will:

      • If there are sudden and unexplained changes in the elderly person’s will that significantly benefit the caretaker, it could be a red flag for undue influence.
    9. Exploiting Dependence on Care:

      • The caretaker may exploit the elderly person’s dependence on their caregiving services as leverage to influence estate planning decisions.
    10. Evidence of Coercion or Threats:

      • There may be direct evidence or testimony indicating that the caretaker used coercion, threats, or other forms of pressure to manipulate the elderly person’s decisions.

It’s important to note that these indicators are not definitive proof of undue influence, and each case is unique. If there are concerns about potential undue influence by a caretaker, seeking legal advice from an experienced probate attorney can help assess the situation and determine the best course of action. Additionally, involving adult protective services or law enforcement may be necessary in cases of suspected elder abuse or financial exploitation.

 Conclusion: Seeking Legal Guidance

These indicators do not definitively prove undue influence, and each case is unique. If you have concerns about potential undue influence by a caretaker, seeking legal advice from an experienced probate attorney can help assess the situation and determine the best course of action. Additionally, you may need to involve adult protective services or law enforcement in cases of suspected elder abuse or financial exploitation.

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