The roots of 21st Century inheritance laws run deep into the cradle of Western Civilization. The ancient Greek Athenian leader Solon made great efforts to devise a law code that ultimately became one of the foundations of democracy. This code helped establish rules for a civilized society. Part of the code addressed inheritance rights. Prior to the code an Athenian could not make a will. At death the wealth and assets of the decedent simply belonged to his family.
Solon changed this. An Athenian, if he had no children, could by will distribute at death his wealth and assets to whomever he pleased. This change was said to show that the decedent could decide “that he esteemed friendship a stronger tie than kindred, affection than necessity; and made every man’s estate truly his own.”
Solon also advanced the idea that wealth and asset transfers that resulted from undue influence could be negated or set aside. While Solon may not have used the term undue influence, the description of the actions that could negate a will are colorful and give us a pretty good idea of what he was talking about.
Plutarch in his epic work, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, writes that Solon “allowed not all sorts of legacies, but those only which were not extorted by the frenzy of a disease, charms, imprisonment, force, or the persuasion of a wife; with good reason thinking that being seduced into wrong was as bad as being forced, and that between deceit and necessity, flattery and compulsion, there was little difference, since both may equally suspend the exercise of reason.”
So we fast forward a couple thousand years to 17th Century England. An English court case involving Sir Francis Bacon set aside a will and deed based on the following facts: A married woman who “worked on [the] simplicity and weakness” of an 80 year old man “by her dalliance and pretence of love . . . and by sundry adulterous courses with him and by sorcery” that he executed a will and deed and then she “used him in a most cruel manner reviling him and causing him to be whipped and suffered him to be loathsome and uncleanly in bed.”
California’s 21st Century definition of undue influence may lack the flair of Solon and Bacon, but it gets the point across. “’Undue influence’ means excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity. In determining whether a result was produced by undue influence, all of the following shall be considered: 1. The vulnerability of the victim … 2. The influencer’s authority … 3. The actions or tactics used by the influencer … 4. The equity of the result …”
Now I can tell you that the everyday life of a trust, estate and elder financial abuse litigator involves filling in the four factors listed above. If you have an undue influence case affecting a will or a trust and you want to talk about it, call us at Hackard Law: (916) 313-3030. We litigate in the major urban areas of California including Sacramento, Los Angeles, Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Francisco. We’re happy to hear your story.