When is a Will the Result of Undue Influence and How to Spot it
After a loved one passes away, eventually attention turns to the decedent’s will and how the Estate will be distributed. Usually, the general contents of someone’s will are known by the family beforehand. However, it happens all too often that a will is submitted to the Court for probate that is not the will you believed your loved one to have. Instead, a will is submitted that you’ve never seen before and was apparently recently executed by the decedent, and the next thing you know you are being told that the Will calls for your loved one’s Estate to be distributed in a way that is drastically different from what you believed their wishes were.
Sometimes these surprise wills are the result of “undue influence,” and therefore invalid. It is important to understand and be able to recognize undue influence to safeguard both the true wishes of the decedent and your rights to a potential inheritance.
Defining Undue Influence
Undue influence in the context of wills is when an individual exerts pressure or manipulates someone else into changing their will or estate plan against their true wishes. It is usually done to benefit the manipulator, but it doesn’t have to.
Generally, undue influence is defined by the Courts as any improper coercion, pressure, urging, or persuasion whereby a decedent’s free will is overcome, and they are caused to create or alter their will or estate plan in a way that they otherwise would not, absent the improper influence. This influence can come from various sources, such as family members, friends, caregivers, or anyone else who holds a position of trust and authority over the testator (the person writing the will). The undue influencer (or manipulator) may use tactics like coercion, deception, emotional manipulation, or threats to improperly control the testator's decisions.
If the Court finds that a will, or an alteration thereto (such as a codicil), then that recent will can be set aside and declared invalid in whole or in part. In that case, the prior will would be deemed valid or the Estate assets would be distributed pursuant to state law.
Identifying Signs of Undue Influence
Recognizing undue influence can be challenging, as it often happens behind closed doors. However, certain red flags may indicate its presence:
- Sudden Changes: If a testator makes drastic alterations to their will that contradict previous intentions without a plausible explanation, it could be a sign of undue influence, especially when it is close in time to the testator’s passing.
- Isolation: The testator may suddenly become isolated from friends, family, or advisors who were previously involved in their financial and estate planning matters, creating an opportunity for the undue influencer to take advantage.
- Unexpected Beneficiaries: When the new will benefits individuals who were not previously close to the testator or were not natural recipients, such as caretakers, it could raise suspicions of undue influence.
- Disregarding Prior Wills: If a new will disregards or excludes provisions from previous valid wills unexpectedly and without reason, it may indicate potential manipulation.
- Mental or Physical Vulnerability: The testator's mental or physical health may be exploited by the undue influencer, making it easier to manipulate their decisions.
Understanding undue influence and being able to recognize when it happens is crucial for protecting the true wishes of your loved one, and your potential inheritance.
If you suspect that a loved one's will has been wrongfully modified or amended by undue influence, then taking prompt action and seeking legal counsel is essential to protect your loved one’s true intentions.
If you are facing concerns related to similar issues or if you have questions about your Trust & Estate dispute, please feel free to contact us here. We have many years of experience handling such matters and will be able to assist you in resolving the dispute.
To learn more about these topics, you may want to review our information provided on these pages: Trust & Estate Litigation.