One of the major points of establishing a comprehensive estate plan is to ensure that your property and assets are given to the people and causes you desire after you pass away. Still, there are times when those whom we expect to inherit most of one’s property do not. When the recipient(s) of an individual’s property are not whom would be expected, it may appear as a red flag. When contested, the court will sometimes step in and overturn the desires expressed in the will, trust, or other documents.
One of the biggest challenges to a will or trust is the concept of undue influence. Undue influence is a legal term used to express when someone is influenced and induced to act otherwise than by their own free will or without adequate attention to the consequences of their decisions.
Coercion or Fraud
However, it is not enough to show that someone left property to an unexpected person; to void the terms you must be able to demonstrate to the court that there was actual coercion or fraud. The courts are open to hearing circumstantial evidence demonstrating that the testator (the maker of the will) had his or her mind overcome by someone else and the terms of their will are not a true reflection of their intentions.
Undue influence is often brought by the children or spouses of the deceased testator. Potential beneficiaries may be able to bring a challenge stemming from undue influence. Individuals who were omitted from a will may argue that they would have received property but for the undue influence. Even those who do receive property may be able to bring a claim for undue influence under the argument that had it not been for such influence they would have received more.
Elements of Undue Influence
Under California law, the elements of undue influence include the following:
- A special relationship exists between the person who made the will and the person who benefitted from it;
- The person who made the will suffered from a mental or physical condition that would allow their freedom of will to be overcome;
- The person who benefited from the will was active in influencing changes to the will; and
- The will omits individuals or organizations that one would normally expect to be included in the will or is contrary to the prior expressed intentions of the testator.
One of the most commonly seen examples of undue influence involves the testator’s caretaker, who suspiciously benefits from the will. In fact, this has been so commonly seen that the state amended its laws to include a presumption of undue influence when transfers are made to caregivers. In such instances where a transfer is made to a caregiver, the caregiver has the burden of proving that this was not caused by undue influence.
Biddle Law Can Help
Cases of undue influence are very fact- and case-specific and can be difficult to prove. To prove or to defend against a claim of undue influence, it’s important to consult with a knowledgeable and experienced California estate planning attorney who knows the current laws and has experience dealing with such important estate planning documents and related issues.
At Biddle Law, we are here to answer all of your questions and walk you through the entire process. We care about you and your loved ones and want to help in any way we can. To learn more or to schedule a consultation, contact us today!