Signs of Undue Influence in Elderly Estate Planning

It sounds like the plot of a movie – someone tricks, pressures, or forces an older adult to change their will or trust, cutting out everyone else from the inheritance and leaving all or most of the assets to the person who exerted undue influence. California law is intended to protect people from this financial abuse, but it still happens frequently. 

Our state statutes cannot always prevent undue influence from happening, but the law gives people damaged by the improper conduct a potential remedy to pursue. A California elder law attorney can help you evaluate the facts of your situation and advise you as to whether you might have grounds to contest a trust or will for undue influence.

Signs of Undue Influence in Elderly Estate Planning

Sometimes, your instincts tell you that something is wrong, but it can be challenging to put into words why you feel that way. Here are four factors you might want to think about if you are considering talking to a lawyer:

  1. Whether the ultimate outcome was unfair. Let’s say that your brother was estranged from your father decades ago. He came back into your father’s life during your dad’s final illness. They resolved their differences, and your dad changed his will to leave everything to you and your brother equally. Because the outcome looks equitable, the court would be less likely to declare the new will invalid. If the new will cuts you out and leaves everything to your brother, however, the court may be much more inclined to find undue influence.
  2. Whether the victim was vulnerable. Advanced age, loneliness, dependence, illness, disability, and other issues can make a person vulnerable. If your dad moved in with your brother before he changed his will and your brother provided needed financial help and other care to your dad, your dad’s illness and dependence could be indications of vulnerability.
  3. Whether the influencer acted in bad faith to control the older person. If your brother limited your dad’s social contacts, used emotional blackmail, or delayed providing your dad with his medications or other medical attention until he signed a new will or trust, those tactics would be signs of undue influence.
  4. Whether the influencer had some apparent authority that the victim relied on or trusted. For example, some people will give more weight to what a doctor, clergy member, or male relative tells them than what other people say. If someone with apparent authority over your elderly relative tries to “cash in” on that relationship, to the detriment of the older person’s other natural heirs, that fact could indicate undue influence. 

In a nutshell, undue influence is unethical behavior that takes away the victim’s free will and achieves an unfair result. When this happens, a court can take action to void the will, codicil, or trust agreement. 

People with the most contact with the victim, like caregivers, relatives, and friends, are most often accused of undue influence. Sometimes the claims are true, but not always. Instead, sometimes a close relative who ignored and neglected an older adult demands to get an equal share with those who provided years of hands-on care for the individual. Inheritance shares do not have to be equal to be fair.  They just have to faithfully reflect the elder’s wishes.

Contact our office today. Our California elder law attorney can provide guidance, whether you think someone unduly influenced your loved one or someone accuses you of perpetrating undue influence.