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What Is Undue Influence?

Two people pointing to document that older person is signing. What is undue influence?

In some cases a deceased person’s Last Will and Testament or Trust may be challenged if there is evidence of undue influence. So, what is undue influence? It is a term used to describe a situation where one person exerts an excessive amount of control or pressure over another person, often resulting in that person making decisions that are not in their best interest. This can occur in a variety of settings, including business deals, legal proceedings, and personal relationships. Understanding what undue influence is and how to recognize it is important for protecting yourself and others from its harmful effects.

What is undue influence?

Undue influence is a situation where one person uses their power or authority to manipulate or pressure another person into making decisions that are not in their best interest. This can involve tactics such as emotional manipulation, threats, or coercion. Undue influence can occur in a variety of settings, including business deals, legal proceedings, and personal relationships. It is important to recognize the signs of undue influence and take steps to protect yourself and others from its harmful effects.

What is undue influence in Arizona?

In Arizona, undue influence is defined as “conduct by which a person unduly influences a testator in executing a will, when that person through his or her power over the mind of the testator makes the testator’s desires conform to his own, thereby overmastering the volition of the testator.” (Parrisella v. Fotopulos.) Put another way, “A person exercises undue influence when he or she overcomes the free will of another person, making that person’s desires conform to his or her own.” Stogner v. Middaugh (In re Estate of Olson) (Ariz. App. 2011)

To prove undue influence, the person challenging the will, trust, or transfer of property must show that:

  1. The testator was vulnerable or susceptible to influence, such as due to age, illness, or dependency on the influencer
  2. The influencer had the opportunity to exert undue influence, such as by being present during the creation of the document or having a close relationship with the testator
  3. The influencer engaged in conduct that was intended to or had the effect of overpowering the testator’s free will and replacing it with the influencer’s will.

If these factors are present, the court may determine that the will, trust, or transfer of property was the result of undue influence and may take steps to unwind it.

Undue influence in estate planning.

In estate planning, undue influence can occur when someone pressures the testator to change their estate plan to benefit themselves or someone else. This pressure can come in the form of coercion, threats, isolation, or other tactics that are designed to overpower the testator’s free will and replace it with the influencer’s will.

If the estate plan is the result of undue influence, it may not reflect the true wishes of the testator. This can lead to disputes and legal challenges, as well as the distribution of assets in a way that the testator did not intend.

When a presumption of undue influence arises.

“A presumption of undue influence arises when one occupies a confidential relationship with the testator and is active in preparing or procuring the execution of a will in which he or she is a principal beneficiary. See In re O’Connor’s Estate, 74 Ariz. 248, 246 P.2d 1063 (1952).” Mullin v. Brown, 115 P.3d 139, 210 Ariz. 545 (Ariz. 2005)

Signs and Examples of Undue Influence

Undue influence can be difficult to recognize, as it often involves subtle tactics that are not immediately obvious. Arizona courts use a list of eight factors to help determine whether a party contesting a Will has established that the Will was procured through undue influence. Those factors are whether:

  1. The alleged influencer has made fraudulent representations to the “testator” (the maker of the Will).
  2. The execution of the Will was the product of hasty action.
  3. The execution of the Will was concealed from others.
  4. The person benefited by the Will was active in securing its drafting and execution.
  5. The Will as drawn was consistent or inconsistent with prior declarations and plannings of the testator.
  6. The Will was reasonable rather than unnatural in view of the testator’s circumstances, attitudes, and family.
  7. The testator was a person susceptible to undue influence. (For example, maybe the testator was in poor health, isolated, or dependent on the influencer.)
  8. The testator and the beneficiary had been in a confidential relationship. (In other words, the influencer had a close relationship with the testator and stood to benefit from the changes.)

See In Re Estate of McCauley.

Other signs of undue influence might include:

  • The testator expresses confusion or uncertainty about the changes to their estate plan
  • The testator has a history of changing their estate plan frequently, especially after the influencer becomes involved
  • Isolation from friends and family, and
  • A lack of access to information or resources.

Examples of undue influence can include a business partner pressuring their colleague into making a risky investment, a caregiver manipulating an elderly person into changing their will, or a romantic partner using emotional manipulation to control their significant other’s actions. It is important to be aware of these signs and take action if you suspect that undue influence is occurring.

Vulnerable Populations.

Vulnerable populations are particularly at risk for experiencing undue influence. This can include elderly individuals, those with disabilities, and those who are experiencing financial or emotional hardship. It is important to be aware of the potential for undue influence in these situations and to take steps to protect these individuals. This can include seeking legal advice, involving trusted family members or friends, and ensuring that the individual has access to resources and information. By being vigilant and proactive, we can help prevent undue influence and protect those who may be vulnerable.

Legal remedies for undue influence.

If you suspect that someone has been subjected to undue influence, there are legal remedies available. These can include challenging a will or other legal document that was created under undue influence, seeking a restraining order to prevent further manipulation, or pursuing criminal charges if the undue influence involved fraud or coercion. It is important to consult with a qualified legal professional who can advise you on the best course of action based on the specific circumstances of the situation.

Read our related blog entitled List Of Ways To Protect Your Inheritance.

How to Protect Yourself and Loved Ones from Undue Influence.

Protecting yourself and loved ones from undue influence starts with being aware of the signs. Look for changes in behavior or decision-making that seem out of character, sudden changes in relationships or financial transactions, and isolation from friends and family. It’s also important to have open and honest communication with loved ones and to seek professional help if you suspect someone is being manipulated. Taking proactive steps can help prevent undue influence and protect those you care about.

There are several steps that you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones from undue influence in estate planning. These include:

  • Choosing a trustworthy and reputable estate planning attorney
  • Creating an estate plan while you are in good health and of sound mind
  • Being clear about your wishes and discussing them with your loved ones
  • Avoiding isolation and maintaining connections with friends and family
  • Being aware of the signs of undue influence and taking action if you suspect it is occurring

How to Identify and Challenge Undue Influence in Estate Planning

If you suspect that a will, trust, or other transfer of property was created as a result of undue influence, there are several steps you can take to challenge it. These include:

  • Gathering evidence to support your claim, such as witness statements and medical records
  • Filing a petition with the court to challenge the document
  • Presenting evidence at a hearing to demonstrate that undue influence occurred
  • Working with an experienced probate litigation attorney who can help you navigate the legal process

Legal Considerations for Unwinding a Will, Trust or Other Transfer of Property in Arizona

In Arizona, there are specific laws in place to help unwind a will, trust, or other transfer of property if it is determined that undue influence played a role in its creation. To prove undue influence, the person challenging the document must demonstrate that the testator was vulnerable, the influencer had the opportunity to exert undue influence, and the influencer engaged in conduct that overpowered the testator’s free will.

Steps to Challenge a Will or Trust Based on Undue Influence

Challenging a will, trust, or other transfer of property based on undue influence can be a complex and challenging process. However, if you suspect that undue influence played a role in the creation of a document, it is important to take action to protect the integrity of the estate plan. Here are the steps for challenging a will or trust on the basis of undue influence in Arizona:

1. Gather Evidence.

The first step in challenging a will or trust on the basis of undue influence is to gather evidence to support your claim. This may include witness statements, medical records, and other documentation that can demonstrate that the testator was vulnerable and the influencer had the opportunity to exert undue influence.

2. Consult with an Attorney

The next step is to consult with an experienced attorney who can help you navigate the legal process. An attorney can review your evidence and help you determine the best course of action to challenge the document.

3. File a Petition.

If you believe that the will, trust, or other transfer of property was created as a result of undue influence, you can file a petition with the court to challenge the document. The petition must be filed within a certain time frame, which varies depending on the circumstances.

4. Present Evidence.

Once you have filed your petition, you will have an opportunity to present evidence at a hearing to demonstrate that undue influence occurred. This may include witness testimony, medical records, and other documentation that supports your claim.

5. Burden of Proof.

In Arizona, the burden of proof is on the person challenging the document to demonstrate that undue influence occurred. This means that you must provide clear and convincing evidence that the influencer engaged in conduct that overpowered the testator’s free will. (However, the burden of proof shifts if there is a presumption of undue influence. See the section above called “When a presumption of undue influence arises.”

6. Legal Considerations.

There are several legal considerations to keep in mind when challenging a will or trust on the basis of undue influence in Arizona. These include the statute of limitations for filing a petition, the potential for the court to order mediation or other alternative dispute resolution methods, and the possibility of facing legal fees and other costs associated with the legal process.

7. Possible Outcomes.

If the court determines that the will, trust, or other transfer of property was created as a result of undue influence, it may be declared invalid. This means that the assets will be distributed according to the testator’s previous estate plan, or according to the state’s intestacy laws if no previous estate plan exists.

Challenging a will or trust on the basis of undue influence can be a challenging and emotional process. However, it is important to take action to protect the integrity of the estate plan and ensure that the testator’s true wishes are carried out. By working with an experienced attorney and gathering compelling evidence, you may be able to successfully challenge a document that was created as a result of undue influence.

Possible Outcomes of a Challenge Based on Undue Influence

Challenging a will, trust, or other transfer of property on the basis of undue influence in Arizona can result in a variety of outcomes. The possible outcomes of a challenge based on undue influence depend on the specific circumstances of the case, the strength of the evidence presented, and the decisions made by the court. Here are some possible outcomes of a challenge based on undue influence in Arizona:

The Will or Trust is Validated.

If the court determines that the will, trust, or other transfer of property was created without undue influence, it will be validated, and the assets will be distributed according to its terms. This means that the beneficiaries named in the document will receive the assets they are entitled to, and any previous estate plan will be disregarded.

The Will or Trust is Declared Invalid.

If the court determines that the will, trust, or other transfer of property was created as a result of undue influence, it may be declared invalid. This means that the assets will be distributed according to the testator’s previous estate plan, or according to the state’s intestacy laws if no previous estate plan exists.

The Will or Trust is Modified.

In some cases, the court may determine that the will, trust, or other transfer of property was partially created as a result of undue influence. In these cases, the court may choose to modify the document to reflect the testator’s true wishes, while also taking into account any undue influence that may have occurred.

The Executor or Trustee is Removed.

If the court determines that the executor or trustee was involved in the undue influence, it may choose to remove them from their position. The court may appoint a new executor or trustee to carry out the testator’s true wishes.

The Parties Reach a Settlement.

In some cases, the parties involved in the dispute may choose to reach a settlement before the case goes to trial.

Let Us Help You.

If you suspect that a loved one’s will or trust was influenced by outside parties, it’s time to take action. Our experienced legal team is here to help you challenge the validity of the document and ensure that your loved one’s wishes are respected.

Undue influence can have devastating consequences for families, but we’re here to fight for your rights. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and learn how we can help you navigate this complex legal process.

Don’t let outside parties take advantage of your loved one’s estate. Take action now to protect their legacy and secure your family’s future. Call us today at 602-443-4888 and let us help you seek the justice you deserve.

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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