Undue influence occurs when a person exerts excessive pressure on the testator, the person creating a will, or manipulates them into leaving assets or property to the influencer in their will.
The influencer is typically someone who shares a special or confidential relationship with the testator, such as a nurse, caretaker, attorney, close friend, or even a family member. This relationship enables the influencer to be involved in the testator’s estate planning process. The influencer leverages their position of trust to manipulate the testator into creating a will that benefits them, often at the expense of the testator’s close family members.
Undue influence goes beyond mere persuasion, as the influence must involve coercion or intimidation tactics.
How Can I Prove Undue Influence in Estate Planning?
People who believe they should have been included in the will or should have received a greater share may contest the will based on a claim of undue influence. To do so, they must provide evidence to the probate court that the will does not accurately represent the testator’s true intentions.
This typically involves establishing the following facts:
- The will distributes the testator’s property in an unexpected manner without a reasonable explanation.
- The testator is vulnerable to exploitation due to age, health, or mental capacity.
- The testator had a special or confidential relationship with the person exerting undue influence.
- The influencer exploited this relationship to pressure or manipulated the testator.
- The influencer benefitted from the will as a result of their influence.
What Are the Indicators of Undue Influence?
There are signs that may suggest that a person has exerted undue influence over a testator. For example, the influencer might encourage the testator to make changes to their will in secret, without informing anyone. They may also persuade the testator to use language in the will that favors the influencer over other beneficiaries.
The influencer might play a dominant role in meetings with the estate planning attorney while excluding other friends or family members from participating. In some cases, the influencer may even take a more active role in drafting the will, possibly by encouraging the testator to use an online will service to bypass involving an estate planning attorney altogether.
A person exercising undue influence may also assume control over other aspects of the testator’s life, such as taking charge of finances, making daily decisions, and becoming heavily involved in the testator’s home maintenance or even moving in. These signs, combined with a testator who may be more susceptible to influence due to age, medical conditions, or mental state, could indicate undue influence.
Can a Will Be Invalidated as a Result of Undue Influence?
Creating a will is an essential part of estate planning. However, sometimes, the will’s validity can be challenged by a person who suspects that the testator was under the undue influence of someone else. If this is the case, the will can be invalidated, and the property distributed according to the intestacy laws of the state.
Factors Considered in Determining Undue Influence
The court considers several factors when determining whether there has been undue influence in drafting a will, including whether the beneficiary was present when the will was written, recommended the attorney who drafted the will, or the distribution of property in the will is significantly different from an earlier version of the testator’s will.
If the testator was elderly or had a learning, language, or other mental disability, the court will also take this into consideration.
Other factors that may be considered are whether the beneficiary arranged the witnesses, the testator left their children or other beneficiaries out of their will without an explanation, and whether the distribution of property significantly differs from how the testator previously planned to distribute their property.
Remedies for Undue Influence
If a person challenges a will for undue influence and proves that the will was not the testator’s true intent, then the court will usually determine that the will is not valid.
If an earlier will is valid, the court might use that to distribute the property. In that case, the earlier will is “revived.”
If the testator did not have an earlier and valid version of their will, all the property in the will gets distributed based on the intestacy laws of the state where the testator lived. In this scenario, the property will be distributed as if the testator never had a will.
The court may also decide to strike out the part of the will that benefits the influencer if the rest of the will can still be carried out properly. That property will then be distributed according to the intestacy laws, and the rest of the property will be distributed according to the will.
Are There Any Penalties for the Influencer?
Yes, there can be penalties for the influencer who is found to have exerted undue influence over the testator when creating the will, but the penalties depend on the specific laws of the state where the testator lived and the circumstances of the case.
If the will is invalidated due to undue influence, the influencer may lose the property or inheritance they would have received under the will.
In some cases, the court may also impose punitive damages or other penalties on the influencer for their actions.
If the influencer acted with criminal intent or engaged in fraudulent conduct, such as forgery or financial exploitation, they may face criminal charges, fines, imprisonment, or other penalties under state criminal law.
For example, in California, financial elder abuse is a crime that can result in 364 days in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for a misdemeanor. If charged as a felony, penalties can include between two and four years in state prison and an additional fine of up to $10,000. In Florida, exploitation of an elderly person or disabled adult for more than $50,000 is a felony offense that carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Do I Need to Hire an Attorney?
Contesting a will for undue influence is a complicated legal process. If you suspect that the will of a loved one was created under undue influence, you should contact an experienced attorney. An attorney can help you review the facts of your situation and determine whether you have enough evidence to challenge the will.
LegalMatch is an online legal matching service that can help you find an experienced attorney to assist you in contesting a will for undue influence. Using LegalMatch, you can quickly and easily connect with attorneys who handle estate planning and probate law.
Our service matches you with attorneys who have experience handling cases similar to yours, and you can review their profiles and read reviews from past clients before choosing one to hire.
Additionally, LegalMatch provides a satisfaction guarantee, which means that if you are not satisfied with the attorney matched to you, you can request a new attorney at no additional cost.
Use LegalMatch to simplify the process of finding a will lawyer and give yourself peace of mind knowing that you have an experienced legal professional on your side.