The elements required to establish undue influence are determined by state law. Therefore, the test for proving undue influence is different from state to state. The party contesting the will typically needs to meet a several prong test to prevail in showing that the intentions the testator had for distributing his estate were replaced by those of the alleged influencer and the testamentary instrument that resulted should be invalidated.
Unless there is a presumption of undue influence as discussed below, the burden of proving a case of undue influence is on the party contesting the will. Depending on the state, several of the following elements may be required to prove the case:a. The testator was susceptible to influence. This may include showing the age, state of mind, or health of the testator made him susceptible to influence.b. The distribution of the estate provided for in the contested will is unnatural. For example, if the will leaves the bulk of the estate to an unrelated beneficiary rather than the children of the testator, that is generally considered unnatural.c. The distribution of the estate is substantially different than that provided for in a prior will or the expressed intentions of the testator throughout his life.d. The alleged influencer benefits substantially under the contested will.e. The alleged influencer had the opportunity to exert influence over the testator. This may include showing that the testator was isolated from his family and was primarily in the company of the alleged influencer or that the testator was dependent on the alleged influencer.f. The primary beneficiary of the will arranged for the will to be made or there are other suspicious circumstances surrounding the will.
g. There is a relationship of confidence or trust, or a fiduciary relationship, between the testator and the alleged influencer.h. The alleged influencer was disposed to influence the testator in order to obtain an improper result.Under the laws of many states, there is a presumption of undue influence if the following elements are shown: 1. there was a confidential relationship between the testator and the alleged influencer; 2. the alleged influencer is a substantial beneficiary of the will; and 3. there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the will, such as the primary beneficiary being actively involved in procuring the will.When there is a presumption of undue influence, the burden of proof shifts to the party supporting the will, called the proponent, to show the contested will was not executed as a result of undue influence.
If You Prove There Was Undue Influence
If a court finds the testator executed the contested will as a result of undue influence, the entire will may be declared invalid or the court may rule that only the provisions applicable to the beneficiary who exerted undue influence should be set aside.If the decedent had a prior will that is valid, the estate will pass according to the provisions of the prior will. Otherwise, the estate will pass to the heirs who would have inherited if the decedent died intestate or without a will.
Should You File a Lawsuit?
If you were disinherited by someone close to you, it can be very painful to learn they decided to leave their property to someone else. However, it is important to keep in mind that with the exception of a statutory share which is often provided for spouses, partners or children of the deceased under state law, every person has the right to distribute his estate according to his own wishes. After the death of a loved one, many people find they were left out of the will and that their relationship with the deceased was not as they assumed.
Nevertheless, if you believe one of the primary beneficiaries of the will took unfair advantage while the testator was vulnerable due to age, health or a relationship of trust, it is important to determine if the last will of the decedent is valid. The only way to know if you have a case is to speak with a lawyer licensed in the state where the decedent was domiciled at the time of death. Discuss your concerns with an attorney who practices estate litigation and probate. Will contests must be filed within a very short time after the will is submitted for probate. Act quickly or you will not be able to file a will contest regardless of the merits of your claim.
How to Stop Undue Influence
If your relative or friend is under the undue influence of someone that is trying to manipulate them, control their finances or commit inheritance theft, there are steps you can take. Read Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs by Steve Hassan. This book outlines how to develop a plan for dealing with these difficult situations.Whether you want to prevent your parent from disinheriting you due to the influence of a caregiver or other controlling person or simply want to regain your relationship with a loved one, Freedom of Mind reveals effective strategies you can use. For more information, refer to our article on
What Constitutes a Relationship of Trust or Confidence?
For purposes of proving a case of undue influence, a confidential relationship may be found when the testator and the alleged influencer were not in equal positions. The lack of equality can be for a variety of reasons. If the testator was dependent on the alleged influencer for daily assistance and care, that may constitute a confidential relationship. A relationship between an attorney and client is another example of a confidential relationship. If the facts show the alleged influencer was in a position to dominate or overpower the testator based on their relationship, a court may find there was a relationship of confidence or trust.