Undue Influence Claims in California
Challenging Improper Wills, Trusts, Guardianships, and Estate Planning Documents
The probate court deals with some of the most important affairs of a person’s life. Estate planning, trusts, and guardianships can address all aspects of a person’s estate. Unfortunately, undue influence can cause people to disregard their own free will, and hand off these important decisions to those who seek to control and take advantage of them.
The experienced Los Angeles probate litigation attorneys at Hackard Law can help family members and loved ones identify and address undue influence in any probate process. We serve residents throughout California (including Santa Clara, Pomona, Sacramento, Alameda, and San Francisco).
The following explains the dangerous consequences of undue influence, and how the attorneys at Hackard Law help to prevent its damaging effects.
What Is Undue Influence?
The California Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act defines undue influence as “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.”
Excessive persuasion is a highly subjective term and can vary greatly depending on the circumstances. The Act therefore identifies factors that a court must consider in determining whether someone exerted undue influence to overcome a person’s will. They include:
- Actions or tactics used by the influencer to control the victim. Examples include withholding food, medication, sleep, and other necessaries of life. Another common tactic is to control the victim’s access to information or interactions with other people. The use of affection, intimidation, or coercion can also overcome a person’s will. Changes in personal or property rights may also indicate undue influence (particularly when the influencer claims expertise in the matter, takes action in secrecy or under claims of time pressure, or initiates them at inappropriate times or places).
- The victim’s vulnerability, including physical incapacity, mental disability, any injuries that impaired the victim, the victim’s age and education level, emotional distress, whether anybody isolated the victim from other sources of support and information, and whether the victim depended on others to meet important needs. A court may also consider whether the influencer knew or should have known about such a vulnerability.
- Any apparent authority the influencer had over the victim. Family members, fiduciaries, spiritual advisors, care providers, healthcare professionals, legal professionals, or experts with some other apparent qualifications can exercise such authority.
- The fairness of the result. While an unfair outcome is not, on its own, sufficient to prove undue influence, it can support claims that inappropriate or unexpected actions resulted in undue influence. Unfair outcomes cast further doubt on questionable actions.
Undue Influence Can Prevent the Honoring of a Person’s Wishes
As you can see, many different actions can overcome a person’s free will. Undue influence thus impairs the victim’s right to choose where to live or how to manage financial affairs, their ability receive health care, and meet the most basic needs of daily life. It can leave a devastating effect on some of California’s most vulnerable residents.
Beneficiaries of a will, trust, or other estate planning documents have a legal interest in the estate of a victim of undue influence. While these property rights are a legitimate cause worthy of defending in court, it is often more important to challenge undue influence to protect the victim from further harm. Even in circumstances where the victim has already passed away (such as the litigation of a will after the victim’s death), survivors can still use legal actions to honor the wishes of the victim.
An Attorney Can Help Challenge Estate Planning Documents, Trusts, and Guardianships Produced by Undue Influence
Undue influence can form grounds for challenging almost any proceeding in the probate courts of California. Potential beneficiaries can challenge trusts that undue influence produced (or that undue influence altered). Heirs and others may challenge state planning documents in probate court at the time they are to take effect.
For example, a healthcare power of attorney is effective when a person is unable to make healthcare decisions. The document thus appoints a person to make such decisions on the patient’s behalf. If undue influence resulted in the signing of such a document, the family could challenge it through an emergency action in the probate court at the time the patient becomes incapacitated.
By contrast, many other estate planning documents (such as last wills and testaments) are only effective upon the death of the person who signs the document (the testator). In this case, heirs cannot challenge the document until the testator’s death. The improper will is submitted to the probate court for acceptance. Potential beneficiaries and others with legal standing can then file challenges to the invalid will.
Certain guardianships and conservatorships are based on the consent of another person. For example, military service members often appoint a friend or family member to act as guardian of their children while they are deployed overseas. This guardianship is based entirely on the parent’s consent, which the parent may revoke at any time. If, however, the consent was obtained through undue influence, then the guardianship is invalid, and it can be challenged.
Experienced Guardianship Litigators to Help Protect a Person’s Wishes
Undue influence can prevent people from carrying out their own wishes in probate documents by overcoming their free will. It is up to loved ones to help prevent undue influence by challenging improper probate documents.
The experienced California probate litigators at Hackard Law can help loved ones identify undue influence and challenge it in probate court. Call (916) 313-3030 from Santa Clara or (213) 357-5200 from Los Angeles (or from anywhere in California), or write to us online to schedule your free consultation with one of our skilled probate litigation attorneys.