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Undue Influence Strikes Again


In 2014 the California Welfare and Institutions Code was updated with a newer, more broad definition of undue influence within the context of estate law. The new definition terms this form of wrongdoing as "excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person's free will and results in inequity." 

A recent case of estate litigation out of San Diego Superior Court, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, provides us a great example of what undue influence can look like in real-life circumstances. Siv Ljungwe, a successful Fulbright scholar and world traveler, died in 2010 at age 77. In 2004 she had arranged a trust that distributed her million-dollar fortune to four parties in equal measure: UNICEF, the NPR Foundation, Doctors Without Borders and the San Diego Research Foundation. Yet Ljungwe experienced a profound tragedy: both of her adult children died - her daughter in 1985 and her son in 2004. Estranged from her husband, Ljungwe by the time of her son's death had descended into mental illness.

It was at this time that she met local attorney Carl Dimeff, who would agree to become her lawyer. The interactions between Ljungwe and Dimeff, however, comprised more than any normal attorney-client relationship. In her mentally incapacitated state, Ljungwe became "infatuated" with Dimeff - to the point of declaring she wanted to give all her money away to him. Using the services of Dimeff's friend and fellow attorney Kirk Miller, in 2008 Ljungwe created a new trust designating Dimeff the sole beneficiary.

Dimeff relates through his own attorneys that he was "truly surprised that she left him her entire estate." Yet in what must have been another genuine surprise for Dimeff, Judge William Nevitt, Jr. invalidated the 2008 trust, citing Ljungwe's mental incapacitation and Dimeff's exercise of undue influence. With that stunner out of the way, deliberations on distributing what's left of $1.1 million to Ljungwe's original beneficiaries are now ongoing.

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