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What Does Undue Influence Mean in Probate? Unraveling the Mystery

Daughter sitting with concerned elderly mother. Does undue influence mean just talking? Or is more required?

What Does Undue Influence Mean in Probate? Probate can be a complex process, with various legal terms and concepts to navigate. One such term is “undue influence,” which can have significant implications in probate cases. But what exactly does it mean?

In the realm of probate, undue influence refers to a situation where an individual exerts control over another person. The person in the power position influences the other person’s decisions and actions to benefit themselves or others. This can occur in various scenarios. An example is when a caregiver manipulates an elderly person into changing their will. Also, when an individual coerces a vulnerable family member to make changes to their estate plan.

Understanding undue influence can directly impact the validity of a will or trust and alter the distribution of assets. Proving undue influence requires careful examination of the circumstances surrounding the creation or modification of a document. Such circumstances include the vulnerability of the individual, the influence exerted, and any resulting changes that deviate from their previously stated wishes.

In this article, we delve deeper into the concept of undue influence in probate. We will explore its definition, signs, and how it can be proven in a court of law. You will gain insights into this intricate area of probate law and build the knowledge to protect your loved ones’.

Signs of undue influence in probate cases

Identifying signs of undue influence is crucial in probate cases. While it may not always be evident, certain red flags may indicate the presence of undue influence. These signs include:

  • Sudden changes in a person’s estate plan that benefit a specific individual,
  • Isolation of the vulnerable person from other family members or friends,
  • And the presence of a dominant and controlling individual who stands to gain from the changes made.

Furthermore, if the vulnerable person’s mental or physical health deteriorates significantly, it may signal potential undue influence. It is essential to be alert when such signs are present to protect the integrity of the probate process.

The legal definition of undue influence

To better understand undue influence in probate, it is essential to comprehend its legal definition. While the exact definition may vary across jurisdictions, the general concept remains consistent. Undue influence refers to the exertion of pressure or persuasion by one person upon another, to the extent that the influenced person’s free will is compromised.

In legal terms, undue influence is typically considered to have occurred when the influencer uses tactics such as manipulation, threats, or deceit to gain control over the vulnerable person’s decisions. The question of undue influence is addressed by the “will substitution test”. In other words, was the influence exerted so strong that it essentially replaced the testator’s own intentions with those of the influencer. The key element is that the influenced person’s decisions are not made voluntarily. Rather, rather the testator ends up making decisions under the influence of another person.

Factors considered in determining undue influence

When assessing the presence of undue influence in a probate case, several factors are taken into consideration. These factors gauge whether the alleged influencer exerted control over the vulnerable person’s decisions, leading to changes in their estate plan or will.

One crucial factor is the vulnerability of the individual allegedly under influence. Vulnerability can arise from various circumstances, such as old age, physical or mental illness, or dependency on others for care. The greater the vulnerability, the higher the likelihood of undue influence.

Another factor is the influencer’s opportunity to exert control over the vulnerable person. This can be assessed by determining the level of contact, communication, and interaction between the influencer and the vulnerable person. The influencer’s relationship with the vulnerable person, their role in their life, and their access to information also play a significant role.

Additionally, changes in the vulnerable person’s estate plan that deviate from their previously stated wishes are considered when evaluating undue influence. If the changes primarily benefit the alleged influencer or go against the vulnerable person’s long-standing intentions, it raises suspicion and warrants further examination.

Challenging a will based on undue influence

When undue influence is suspected in a probate case, it is possible to challenge the validity of a will. Challenging a will based on undue influence requires thorough investigation and gathering of evidence to substantiate the claim.

To challenge a will, the interested party must file a petition with the probate court, outlining the reasons for suspecting undue influence. The burden of proof lies with the challenging party, who must present sufficient evidence to establish that undue influence occurred.

The court will then assess the evidence presented and consider various factors. Such factors include the vulnerability of the individual, and the influencer’s relationship and access to the vulnerable person. Another factor is whether there are any changes in the estate plan that deviate from the individual’s previously expressed wishes. If the court finds the evidence compelling, it may declare the will invalid due to undue influence.

Proving undue influence in probate court

Proving undue influence in probate court can be a complex and challenging task. It usually requires an expert witness. An article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law gives a good background. Generally speaking, it requires a thorough examination of the circumstances and gathering of evidence to support the claim.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

The burden of proving undue influence normally rests on the party claiming it. For example, in Parrisella v. Fotopulos, the court stated that the burden is on the challenger to prove the invalidity of a governing instrument by a preponderance of the evidence. Similarly, in In re Westfall’s Estate, the court held that the burden of proof is on the contestant to prove fraud or undue influence.

However, the cases and statutes also make clear that a presumption of undue influence can arise under certain circumstances. This presumption shifts the burden to the accused influencer. For example, in Mullin v. Brown, the court held that the burden of persuasion shifts to the proponent of the will once the presumption arises. In Larmer v. Larmer, the court similarly stated that the burden of proof shifts to the accused influencer to rebut the presumption by a preponderance of the evidence.

The conditions for the presumption to arise are set out in A.R.S. § 14-2712(E), which states that a governing instrument is presumed to be the product of undue influence if either (1) a person who had a confidential relationship to the creator of the governing instrument was active in procuring its creation and execution and is a principal beneficiary of the governing instrument, or (2) the person who prepared the governing instrument is a principal beneficiary of the governing instrument.

Evidence of Undue Influence

Some of the key pieces of evidence that can help establish undue influence include:

1. Testimony from witnesses who observed the influencer’s behavior and the vulnerable person’s state of mind during the creation or modification of the estate plan. These witnesses can provide insight into any signs of coercion or manipulation.

2. Medical records or expert opinions that demonstrate the vulnerable person’s mental or physical state and their susceptibility to undue influence.

3. Documentation that indicates the influencer’s attempts to control or manipulate the vulnerable person’s decisions. These can include emails, letters, or text messages.

4. Financial records that show any unusual transactions or changes in the vulnerable person’s assets that align with the alleged influencer’s interests.

By presenting a case supported by strong evidence, it becomes possible to convince the probate court that undue influence occurred. Additionally, it proves that the affected estate plan or will should be deemed invalid.

Preventing undue influence in estate planning

Prevention is always better than cure, and this holds true when it comes to protection against undue influence. Taking proactive measures can help safeguard the integrity of an individual’s wishes and minimize the risk of manipulation or coercion.

One effective step is to involve a trusted attorney in the estate planning process. An experienced attorney can provide guidance, ensure legal compliance, and help identify any signs of potential undue influence. They can also help create a comprehensive and legally sound estate plan that reflects the individual’s true intentions.

Regularly reviewing and updating an estate plan is also crucial. By staying informed about changes in laws and regulations, an individual can ensure that their plan remains up to date and in line with their current wishes. Regular meetings with an attorney can provide an opportunity to discuss any concerns or suspicions regarding undue influence and take appropriate action if needed.in

Common scenarios where undue influence may occur

Undue influence can occur in various scenarios, often involving vulnerable individuals who may be more susceptible to manipulation. Some common scenarios where undue influence may arise in probate include:

1. Caregiver influence: When a caregiver, such as a nurse or family member, exploits their position of trust and authority to manipulate an elderly or dependent person into changing their estate plan to benefit themselves or others.

2. Family dynamics: In situations where family members have strained relationships or conflicts of interest, one individual may attempt to exert control over another, leading to changes in the estate plan that do not align with the vulnerable person’s true intentions.

3. New relationships: If a vulnerable person forms a new relationship, particularly with someone significantly younger or with questionable motives, they may be more susceptible to undue influence, as the new individual may seek to gain control over their assets.

4. Isolation: When a vulnerable person becomes isolated from their support network, such as friends or other family members, an influencer may take advantage of this isolation to manipulate the individual’s decisions.

Case studies of undue influence in probate

Examining real-life case studies can provide valuable insights into the complexities and consequences of undue influence in probate. While specific details may vary, these examples illustrate the potential impact of undue influence:

1. Case Study 1: An elderly widow, living alone and dependent on her caregiver, suddenly changes her will, leaving the majority of her estate to the caregiver. The widow’s adult children suspect undue influence and contest the will, presenting evidence of the caregiver’s manipulation and isolation tactics.

2. Case Study 2: A wealthy business owner remarries late in life. Shortly after the marriage, he updates his estate plan, significantly reducing the inheritance of his adult children and leaving the majority to his new spouse. The children suspect undue influence and gather evidence of the spouse’s controlling behavior and attempts to isolate their father from his family.

3. Case Study 3: An elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease modifies his trust, naming his recently formed romantic partner as the sole beneficiary. Suspicion arises among the man’s family members, who provide medical records and witness testimony to demonstrate the man’s lack of mental capacity and vulnerability to undue influence.

These case studies highlight the importance of recognizing and addressing undue influence in probate cases to ensure the fair distribution of assets and the protection of vulnerable individuals.

Conclusion: Protecting against undue influence in probate

Undue influence is a serious concern in probate cases. It undermines the integrity of an individual’s wishes and leads to unfair distribution of assets. Understanding the concept of undue influence is essential for protecting the interests of loved ones and ensuring a fair probate process.

By identifying signs of undue influence, knowing the legal definition, and understanding the factors considered in determining undue influence, individuals can be better equipped to challenge a will or trust when necessary. Proving undue influence in probate court requires thorough investigation and gathering of evidence. But, with a compelling case, it is possible to establish the occurrence of undue influence and protect the integrity of the probate process.

Taking proactive measures to prevent undue influence in estate planning, such as involving a trusted attorney and regularly reviewing and updating an estate plan, can significantly reduce the risk of manipulation or coercion. Furthermore, awareness of common scenarios where undue influence may occur can also help individuals recognize potential red flags.

In conclusion, understanding undue influence is crucial for anyone involved in estate planning or facing a probate case. By gaining insights into this intricate aspect of probate law, individuals can navigate the process with confidence and ensure the fair distribution of assets according to their true intentions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Founding attorney Paul Deloughery has been an attorney since 1998, became a Certified Family Wealth Advisor. He is also the founder of Sudden Wealth Protection Law.

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