Trusts and wills are important legal tools that carry out a person's wishes with respect to their property. When undue influence from an individual, group, or company overcomes a person's will, some people can challenge these wishes in court. Proof of undue influence may invalidate a will or trust altogether.
Family members and friends should challenge trusts that undue influence helped to produce because such trusts do not accurately reflect the wishes of the trust grantor. You can use litigation to promote the grantor's wishes and protect that person from future undue influence. The experienced probate attorneys at Hackard Law focus on litigation of improper trusts and estates. They have the knowledge and skill necessary to successfully prove the effects of undue influence.
What Is Undue Influence?
The California Welfare and Institutions Code defines undue influence as excessive persuasion that (1) causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person's free will, and (2) results in inequity. A court considers many factors in determining the existence of undue influence. These include the vulnerability of the victim, the influencer's apparent authority, the equity of the result, and the actions or tactics used by the influencer. These tactics may include control over the necessaries of life, medication, the victim's interactions with others, access to information, or sleep. It can also include the use of affection, intimidation, coercion, or initiation of changes in personal or property rights.
When examining the changes in personal or property rights, a court may consider the use of haste or secrecy in effecting those changes, making changes at inappropriate times and places, and claims of expertise in effecting changes. The California legislature, through the Elder Abuse Act, has enacted serious legal protections for vulnerable adults who may find themselves susceptible to financial abuse.
California probate law also has many strict provisions that carry harsh results for those who would attempt to benefit from undue influence. Section 21380 of the California Probate Code creates a presumption of undue influence for gifts made under dubious circumstances. These include gifts made to the person who drafted a donative instrument (such as a will or trust), gifts made to a transcriber of such an instrument who is also in a fiduciary relationship with the grantor, and the care custodian of a dependent adult (if the instrument was made during the time the custodian rendered care services, or within 90 days before or after such services were rendered). Employees, relatives, and cohabitants of these persons are also presumed to exert undue influence if a gift is made.
To overcome this statutory presumption, a beneficiary must prove--by clear and convincing evidence--that the gift was not the product of undue influence. Clear and convincing evidence is a higher standard than the civil burden of a preponderance of the evidence, making it more difficult to prove. Beneficiaries who are unsuccessful in an attempt to overcome the presumption of undue influence are also responsible for all costs and attorney's fees related to their case.
What to Do If a Trust Was Created, Modified, or Revoked as the Result of Undue Influence
In addition to the remedies provided by the Elder Abuse Act, Section 17200 of the California Probate Code provides mechanisms by which a trustee or beneficiary may petition the probate court to determine the existence of a trust or the validity of a provision of a trust.
The beneficiary must first file a petition with the probate court, then will have the opportunity to present evidence to the court about what tactics were used, what the grantor's true intentions were, and how the influencer was able to change those intentions. The court must then determine whether the grantor was victimized by undue influence.
If so, the court must determine which actions resulted from undue influence so it can rescind them. If, for example, the trust itself was formed as the result of undue influence, the court may need to entirely rescind the trust. On the other hand, a court may rescind a modification while leaving the trust otherwise intact. A court may undo the revocation of a trust by simply reinstating it. The court must determine which specific acts resulted from undue influence to determine which acts were valid and which were not.
An experienced probate litigator can help beneficiaries determine the best legal tools for addressing any undue influence that may have resulted in a trust's formation, modification, or revocation. A probate action to challenge the validity of the trust can protect the beneficiary's property interest in the trust, and also ensure that the trust effectuates the true wishes of the grantor.
In situations where the grantor is still alive, it is still important to consider the possibility of further undue influence. Continued influence may impair property rights in retirement accounts, Social Security income, real estate holdings, investment, and even cash. Undue influence can also restrict access to medication, healthcare, sleep, or basic hygiene.
Carefully consider and investigate the safety of the grantor. If an assisted living facility or care provider is exerting undue influence over a vulnerable adult, a police investigation may prove necessary. Healthcare regulators and authorities may also need to become involved to prevent the facility from exerting undue influence over other vulnerable patients. An experienced elder law attorney can also help beneficiaries determine the best method of pursuing civil, criminal, and administrative remedies against such care providers.
Legal Tools to Protect the Rights of Family Members, Friends, and Testators
If you believe that a trust or estate was formed as the result of undue influence, contact a probate attorney as soon as possible. It is not just your legal rights that are in jeopardy--undue influence impairs the legal rights of a grantor as well.
Call Hackard Law today to schedule your free consultation with one of the attorneys at Hackard Law. Our Los Angeles probate litigators have extensive experience in proving undue influence to successfully challenge invalid trusts and wills. You can reach our office at (916) 313-3030 from Santa Clara and (213) 357-5200 from Los Angeles, and online here.