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Undue Influence in Estate Cases

One of the major issues that estate disputes can hinge on is undue influence. If an ailing elder changes their estate plans in a radical or unexpected manner shortly before, such an action will inevitably bring questions: What was behind the decision to amend the estate or trust? More importantly, who was behind the decision and how might they have influenced it? When the timing and circumstances of altered estate documents stand out even to a casual observer, we have a right to be suspicious.

A recent case out of Portsmouth, NH, illustrates just this point. The late Geraldine Webber, an elderly Portsmouth resident, died at age 94 in 2012. Webber suffered from dementia, with which she had been diagnosed in 2010. Just seven months before her death, she changed her 2009 will, making a non-relative the primary beneficiary of her estate. Who was the new primary beneficiary? Local police officer Aaron Goodwin, who became acquainted with Webber in the months before her passing.

Goodwin had somehow convinced Webber to sign over $2.7 million to him as an inheritance, bypassing the previous designated beneficiaries from the senior citizen's family. Now the Webber family and two hospitals have gone to court over the late Geraldine's estate, alleging that the police officer manipulated Webber into transferring her beachfront house, stock holdings, and a Cadillac into his possession upon her death. Among other details, retired Portsmouth PD veteran and neighbor John Connors reported to the press that he had witnessed Goodwin visiting Webber's home in his police vehicle over 100 times. And then there's this point of contention:

According to court records, several lawyers declined to rewrite Webber's 2009 will, while citing concerns about her mental capacity, before Hampton attorney Ralph Holmes agreed to do so.

The fact that the new beneficiary is said to have "shopped around" for a lawyer who would change Webber's will, despite objections from several attorneys, represents a major red flag pointing to possible undue influence. Because of her dementia, Webber was cognitively impaired and could not be expected to exercise good judgment, especially under the  guidance of a new "friend" who allegedly had designs on her multimillion estate. The case is now being heard in probate court, with the disputed $2.7 million held in Webber's trust.

It's sad to say that estate and trust litigation of this nature is more common that we might think in California, as well. Financial elder abuse through undue influence (including isolation, coercion and/or emotional manipulation) are addressed under the Elder Abuse Act, and families that have been wronged can prosecute in civil court.

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