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Determining Undue Influence in Estate Law

Attorney Gary Holmes administers the late Geraldine Webber's contested will in 2012. Attorney Gary Holmes administers the late Geraldine Webber's contested will in 2012. Video still.

Offenders in elder abuse cases - especially when there's big money at stake in an estate claim - will not only conceal their wrongdoing. When it's exposed, they'll often claim to have done exactly what the victim wanted. That's why we have laws on undue influence.

Under California's Welfare and Institutions Code, undue influence is defined as "excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person's free will and results in inequity." And the first section below this definition expands on the factor of victim vulnerability, characterized by "incapacity, illness, disability, injury, age, education, impaired cognitive function, emotional distress, isolation or dependency, and whether the influencer knew or should have known of the alleged victim's vulnerability."

As we can see, it's not just the direct acts of the wrongdoer that fall under the law - it's also the potential vulnerability of a senior citizen that can facilitate predatory behavior by the abuser. A case we've been covering out of New Hampshire demonstrates well how elder vulnerability plays into undue influence. Portsmouth, NH, resident Geraldine Webber, who died in 2012 at age 94, left her $2.7 million estate to unrelated police officer Aaron Goodwin, whom she had met two years prior. Seven months before she died, Webber changed her will, designating Goodwin the main beneficiary and disinherited two local hospitals she had previously named as beneficiaries.

There's plenty of reason to view these circumstances as suspicious - Webber was diagnosed with dementia in 2010. Goodwin also had to go through several lawyers before finding one to agree to administer the change in will, since all the others had refused due to the elderly woman's mental and medical conditions. With probate litigation underway in the case, we now have expert testimony on Goodwin's condition from psychiatrist Dr. Barry Roth, a veteran medical doctor practicing for 40 years and member of Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Harvard Medical School.

In addition to a host of medical problems enumerated in his report, Roth also noted that Webber stated during the change of will she had no idea what she was signing, as well as exhibiting "lewd and obscene speech and behavior." Roth's conclusion? Webber's decision to amend her will "was not made freely and voluntarily, but rather, was the result of undue influence or otherwise improper influence by Aaron Goodwin." Such powerful testimony should be a reminder that elder financial abuse and manipulation might seem to pay off in the short term - but not forever.

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