Undue Influence

From Jeffrey’s interview for the Masters of Estates & Probate series on ReelLawyers.com

Wills and trusts are essential estate planning tools that are designed to provide for the management and distribution of a person’s assets upon death. When a beneficiary, caregiver or other party has undue influence over a testator or grantor, surviving family members can challenge a will or trust in court. Nonetheless, invalidating a will or trust based on undue influence requires clear and convincing evidence. The best decision you can make to protect your interests in this situation – whether you are challenging or defending a testamentary instrument – is to consult an experienced trust litigation attorney.

At Loew Law Group PLC, our legal team has the knowledge and skills to handle claims of undue influence in the Northern California probate courts. If you believe undue influence impacted a will or trust, or are seeking to protect a loved one from future undue influence, we will provide you with first-rate legal representation and work tirelessly to protect your inheritance rights.  We also stand ready to defend your loved ones’ estate plans, if you or others are wrongfully accused of undue influence. When you become our client, you can rest assured we will always put your best interests first. 

What Is Undue Influence?

Undue influence occurs when an individual uses his or her position of authority to exploit the trust and dependency of the victim and causes the victim to lose his or her free will to make decisions. The influencer could be a family member, friend, or caregiver or a professional such as a financial advisor. Elders are particularly vulnerable to undue influence, especially those who are recently widowed, isolated or suffering with cognitive disorders (e.g dementia, Alzheimers).

Those in the best position to exert undue influence are usually beneficiaries and caretakers who are in close contact with the victim. The methods used to influence the victim are often not initially obvious to others, however, and often go undetected until a will is probated or a trust is administered. 

It is worth noting that a certain level of influence is permissible, provided that it doesn’t rise to the level of “undue” influence. As an example, there’s nothing inherently wrong or illegal with a daughter encouraging her father to leave her the family vacation home. If the father is in a vulnerable position because he’s ill or frail and the daughter is his caregiver, however, a court might find that the daughter unduly influenced him to change his will.

Declaring a Will or Trust Invalid Through Undue Influence

A will or trust can be declared invalid if undue influence was used on the deceased to obtain assets that would otherwise have gone to others. Under California law, there is a presumption of undue influence if an interested party can demonstrate the following elements:

  • There was a confidential relationship between the testator and the influencer
  • The influencer actively participated in obtaining the will or trust
  • The influencer obtained an undue benefit from the will or trust

In addition, the California Probate Code was revised in 2014 to incorporate the definition of undue influence contained in the California Welfare and Institutions Code as “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.” Additionally, the law considers a number of factors to determine whether undue influence exists, including:

  • The vulnerability of the victim
  • The influencer’s apparent authority over the victim
  • The use of manipulative and unfair tactics
  • Whether an inequitable economic consequence resulted

In any event, the courts are reluctant to invalidate testamentary documents unless there is a compelling reason to do so. You cannot contest a will or trust based on undue influence merely because you were dissatisfied with the distribution plan. For this reason, it is crucial to enlist the services of an experienced trust and estate litigation attorney with experience challenging wills and trusts – or defending them, when they are wrongfully challenged – in probate court.

How Difficult Is It To Prove Undue Influence?

Proving undue influence in San Mateo courts can be challenging. It often requires demonstrating a vulnerable victim, improper pressure or manipulation, and a resulting unfair outcome. Gathering evidence like medical records, witness testimony, and financial records is crucial, but success hinges on convincing the court the influence significantly warped the decision in question. This is why it is crucial to contact an experienced attorney.

Call Our Northern California Trust and Estate Litigation Attorney

At Loew Law Group, we know that challenging a will or trust can have lasting repercussions and that claims of undue influence can weigh heavily on family members. Moreover, challenges on the grounds that a will or trust was obtained through undue influence depend on the unique facts of each case. For this reason, we will carefully consider whether your claim has merit before commencing any legal action. 

At the same time, we know how to demonstrate the necessary elements of undue influence and have a proven history of achieving successful outcomes in probate court. If you believe pressure or coercion was involved with a loved one’s estate plan, you need the informed legal representation Loew Law Group is prepared to provide. On the other hand, if you or others are wrongfully accused of undue influence, we stand ready to defend your rights under the challenged estate plan.  Please contact our office today to speak with our trust and estate litigation attorneys.