What Is Undue Influence in Elder Law Cases?

Whenever a person leaves a disproportionate share of his or her assets to a caregiver or friend, or only one or two of the person’s natural heirs, leaving out others, the disappointed would-be beneficiaries are likely to cry “undue influence.” This argument is often the basis of a will or trust contest. Sometimes close friends or family will attempt to get the court to set aside the transfer of an asset, like real estate, investments, or other property, while the victim is still alive, by claiming that the transaction was the product of undue influence.

It is a good idea to work with a California elder abuse attorney, whether you are going forward with a claim of undue influence against someone or defending yourself from accusations. Undue influence cases are complicated, sophisticated matters involving California statutes and evidence.

How California Statutes Define Undue Influence in Elder Law Cases

The courts evaluate multiple factors when deciding whether someone exerted inappropriate control over an aged person. The undue influence must cause the older adult to take an action or refrain from acting, and thereby achieve an inequitable result.

The court will look at some or all of the following elements to determine if someone is liable for overcoming the older adult’s free will by using excessive persuasion:

  • Whether the victim was vulnerable. This factor assumes that the unduly influenced older person was the victim. The influencer must have known or should have known of the victim’s vulnerability, which can include things like impaired cognitive function, age, education, dependency on the influencer, isolation, illness or injury, and incapacity. 
  • The apparent authority of the alleged influencer. The court will evaluate the relationship between the influencer and the older adult. Apparent authority can be a status of caregiver, financial fiduciary, healthcare worker, spiritual advisor, family member, close friend, or some other relationship.
  • Tactics the influencer used, like intimidation, coercion, or affection. Some influencers withhold food, water, sleep, or medication until the victim does what the abuser wants. Isolating the victim from visitors and outside communication, or from information, are additional strategies that indicate undue influence. Courts also look at whether changes in property or personal rights happened suddenly, in secret, under unusual circumstances, or at the initiation of the influencer.
  • An inequitable result. The final element the courts consider is whether the influence caused an unfair or inappropriate outcome. When a senior suddenly changes his or her will or living trust, such as by cutting out the previous beneficiaries in a significant departure from the victim’s prior intent, or the older adult suffers adverse economic consequences as a result of the action, the court can view these facts as evidence of possible undue influence.

You must show more than just an inequitable result to win an undue influence claim. The unfair outcome must be the consequence of inappropriate conduct by the influencer. 

Sometimes an older person changes the beneficiaries of a previous will or trust because of abandonment, neglect, or other mistreatment by those individuals – or even based simply on the older person’s change in feelings or beliefs about those prior beneficiaries.  These changes are not enough, by themselves, to set aside the disputed transactions. The disinherited ones must prove that the person who receives the older adult’s bounty did something wrong to achieve that result.Time is of the essence if your loved one was the victim of undue influence, causing them to change their estate plan or transfer their assets to benefit the undue influencer. You might be able to recover some of the assets if you do not wait too long. Talk with our California elder law attorneys today. Our California elder law attorneys can help you take action to protect your loved one and try to reclaim the ill-gotten gains.