Undue Influence

Protecting Your Rights When Undue Influence Invalidates a Will

Writing a last will and testament is a personal experience and people who write them (testators) should receive full discretion when it comes to how they devise their property after they pass away. While testators can certainly request and heed the advice of loved ones and trusted advisors when drafting or altering a will, the final decisions should be theirs and theirs alone.

In some situations, however, a will may contain provisions or bequests that surprise you and do not seem in line with the testator's values. If this happens, you should consider whether someone exercised undue influence over the testator.

Undue influence goes beyond flattery or suggestions. It involves an influencer gaining a position of trust in the testator's life and using that position of trust to secure an unfair benefit. Such influence rises to the level of coercion, and an influencer cannot justify this coercion just because the testator agreed to alter a will. Even if a testator seemed to willingly favor the influencer, it can constitute undue influence if the willingness was based on manipulation and coercion.

Someone who unduly influenced a will is unlikely to admit it, and once testators pass away, they cannot give their side of the story. For these reasons, if you suspect that a will is invalid due to undue influence, you need qualified legal assistance to identify and prove it.

At Hackard Law, we regularly represent clients in complex estate litigation, including will contests arising from undue influence claims. Attorney Michael Hackard knows how to recognize and prove undue influence-in fact, he wrote a book about it, The Wolf at the Door. If undue influence caused you harm, we can stand up for your rights. Please contact our office to discuss your situation today.

Recognizing Undue Influence

Each undue influence case is unique and fact-driven. Often, there is only a fine line separating legitimate influence by a trusted individual from self-serving undue influence. Undue influence is generally exercised in private so other family members and beneficiaries may not realize that such influence occurred until the probate court receives a will. At this point, the testator can no longer testify to what happened and you must recognize any undue influence from circumstantial evidence.

If you suspect someone wrongfully influenced a will, review your concerns with an attorney who has experience recognizing this type of wrongdoing and a focus on contesting wills.

Looking back, you may recognize signs of undue influence even if you did not realize it at the time. Some of these may include:

● The influencer reduced or stopped calling, visiting, or consulting with other family members or friends

● The influencer was always present during visits or calls with other loved ones

● The influencer pushed away family and friends who wanted to help care for the individual and limited help from social workers or other potential caretakers

● The individual became less independent and more reliant on the influencer's help

● The individual acted differently around the influencer

● The individual checked with the influencer before making everyday decisions

● The individual did not always know the status of any financial accounts-and the influencer had access to those accounts

● The influencer either exaggerated praise for the individual to earn trust or wore down the individual with criticism, making the victim feel incapable

● The individual changed estate planning lawyers based on the influencer's suggestion

● The influencer accompanied the individual to all estate planning appointments

● The influencer began spending unusual or excessive amounts of time with the individual

● The influencer convinced the individual not to trust other loved ones

● The individual made gifts to the influencer, which may have started small and gradually increased

● The individual added the influencer to financial accounts or titles to property

When reviewing a will, you experience shock if someone received a disproportionate and surprising percentage of the estate. If you suspect that the testator would not have independently made such bequests, hire estate litigator Michael Hackard to examine the circumstances of your case.

Proving Undue Influence

While each case will present unique evidence, your attorney must generally prove four main elements to successfully contest a will based on undue influence.

1. The victim's vulnerability - Many factors can make a testator vulnerable to undue influence, including disabilities, illnesses, diminished cognitive abilities, dependency, emotional distress, fearfulness, and more. It is also important to show that the influencer knew the testator was vulnerable.

2. The influencer's power - Undue influencers use a position of trust to exercise their influence. Many influencers are family members, caretakers, legal professionals, fiduciaries, or even spiritual advisers.

3. Manipulative tactics - An influencer can psychologically, emotionally, and legally manipulate a testator through many different methods. Many of the above-mentioned signs can indicate the specific tactics used by a specific influencer.

4. An unfair outcome - An undue influence claim must demonstrate that victims suffered losses due to the wrongdoing. This can include exclusion from a will or significantly reduced bequeathments or gifts.

Any undue influence litigation will require a substantial discovery period. Your attorney will gather evidence to prove the four above elements and demonstrate the extent of your losses. You cannot get inside the testator's head and prove his beliefs and intentions, which makes this challenging. However, a lawyer with a focus on estate litigation will know what types of evidence to present to prove your case.

Discuss Your Concerns With a Los Angeles and Santa Clara Estate Litigation Law Firm

A successful undue influence claim will result in the court invalidating all or part of the most recent will. Distribution of the estate will then take place by referring to a previous will or California's intestacy laws. This can result in the inheritance you deserve after your parent or another loved one passes away.

Hackard Law handles dynamic estate litigation cases and understands how to bring a successful will contest in California courts. To learn more, please call (213) 357-5200 to get our Los Angeles office and (916) 313-3030 for our Santa Clara office, or contact us online.