Elder financial abuse is a serious crime that reverberates throughout our communities, and it's a growing problem across the state of California. When an elder's estate or trust is suddenly changed without explanation to produce an unjust outcome, an unscrupulous family member, caretaker, or a bad trustee could be violating your beneficiary rights, with the means of coercion known as undue influence. If you are faced with a wrongdoer exercising undue influence in an estate case, there are certain key elements required to establish your claim.
- The Double-Edged Sword: From January 1st, 2014, the definition of undue influence was updated under California's Welfare & Institutions Code Section 15610.70. Now undue influence claims that are used to overturn invalid wills and trusts in probate court can also be filed in your local county superior court as a potential case of elder financial abuse. Civil court trials, decided by a jury, allow you to pursue damages and punish a wrongdoer for elder financial abuse.
- Coercion is Needed: The division of an estate may indeed be unfair, but if the elder testator is of sound mind and not coerced, then a judge won't take much interest in the result. Unfairness is not enough. What's crucial here is the presence of coercive behavior by the wrongdoer against the elder. This could be isolation, emotional manipulation, physical abuse, or some combination thereof - all to produce an unequitable result for the original intended beneficiaries.
- Burden of Proof: Undue influence provides a legal advantage to plaintiffs, since burden of proof shifts to accused elder abusers, who are obligated to show they did not exercise undue influence. But a plaintiff must first demonstrate: 1) a confidential relationship between the elder and suspected abuser. 2) the abuser was an active party in forming the will or trust. 3) the abuser unduly benefitted from the new estate arrangement.
- Susceptibility: The mental condition of an elder comes into play when proving undue influence. The elder victim must be susceptible to manipulation by the wrongdoer - in other words, in a weakened mental state. Degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's, as well as the effects of prescription drugs, can often factor into elder financial abuse stories. Expert medical testimony is necessary to demonstrate elder susceptibility.
All the above elements make a viable court case for undue influence and elder financial abuse. And as with any successful case, a judge (in probate) and jury (in a civil trial) should see the full context and timeline of what happened - how an injustice was perpetrated against an elder and their loved ones. Relating the story of what happened in a personal way is a big step toward holding an abuser accountable and recovering rights to an estate.
If you suspect a case of undue influence or financial exploitation of an elderly loved one in your family, you can call us at Hackard Law. We represent clients throughout California, including in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Alameda and Santa Clara counties. It's our top priority to safeguard client interests, and we'll be happy to listen to your story. Our number is 916-313-3030.