Identifying Undue Influence
In its most general terms, undue influence involves asserting strong influence over another person to do something. This influence often undermines the other person’s free will and pressures them into doing something they would not normally do. The concept comes up frequently in trust and estate disputes, specifically where someone is creating a trust or a Last Will and Testament. If the document is found to have been drafted while the principal was operating under undue influence, this can sometimes invalidate a trust document or a will.
Defining Undue Influence in Estate Disputes and Will Contests
Undue influence is often asserted over someone who, for any of several reasons, is especially vulnerable or susceptible to influence. This person might be elderly or have a medical condition that limits their cognitive abilities. Those who have dementia or periods of confusion may be particularly suspectable to undue influence.
While state laws in Minnesota and Florida vary slightly when it comes to proving undue influence in a will contest or estate dispute, both states have the same general requirements. These include:
- The will or trust document seems out of character for the decedent
- The decedent was reliant on someone to provide care
- The decedent was frail or ill, which left them particularly vulnerable to undue influence
- The influencer benefited in some way because of the new will or revised trust document
Signs and Perpetrators of Undue Influence
Undue influence is similar to other forms of abuse in that its perpetrators often seek to isolate their victims by cutting off communication with others. In some cases, the lack of contact is the only warning sign, before an alleged victim’s death, that anything is wrong.
Ultimately, undue influence goes much further than simple influence, and there is no particular relationship to the principal that consistently indicates when undue influence is being exercised. Anyone can potentially exercise undue influence, from spouses to friends to third-party caretakers.
Who Are the Victims of Undue Influence?
The vulnerable person upon whom undue influence is perpetrated may be referred to as the “victim” of this manipulation, but often they are not the person most directly harmed. In many cases, the individuals harmed by undue influence are friends or family members who expect to benefit from their loved one’s estate, by receiving generational wealth in the form of real property or treasured heirlooms of sentimental value.
Because one of the most common uses of undue influence is to convince an individual to change the terms and beneficiary designations in their estate planning documents, those who suffer loss as a result of this manipulation often do not realize that a change caused by the undue influence has occurred until after their loved one passes away. A new will that leaves everything to a non-relative caretaker may not come to light until after a loved one’s death. This pattern certainly causes some issues because no one can ask the testator what they actually wanted or if the change to their estate plan was precipitated by someone else’s persuasion.
When Normal Influence Becomes “Undue”
Some level of influence is not a problem. Many people will influence an individual’s choices to create or change their will or estate plan. For instance, imagine a man becomes remarried. His children from his first marriage are very cruel to his new wife. In that situation, his new wife may very well influence the father to change his will to limit the children’s bequests or cut them out of the will entirely. This type of situation certainly involves influence, but the influence may not necessarily be “undue.”
The situation becomes very different if the father is frail or has dementia, and the new wife actively convinces him to cut his children out of his will so she can receive more from his estate. If there is medical evidence of his mind failing, or if he is vulnerable to influence for other reasons, the new wife’s influence is more likely to be considered “undue.”
Proving Undue Influence
When someone challenges a will or a trust, they have the burden to prove that undue influence occurred, according to the Office of the Revisor of Statutes in Minnesota and, in Florida, the 2022 Florida Statutes. The challenger can take steps to prove their allegation in several ways. Below are a few examples of evidence that might lead to a determination that undue influence has occurred.
- Medical evidence that the decedent was frail or mentally vulnerable
- The person who asserted the undue influence was the main caretaker, or the decedent was dependent exclusively on that person
- The change in the will or estate document was out of character for the decedent
- The decedent had regular, positive contacts with people who were removed from the will or estate plan
- The decedent did not consult with independent third parties (like financial advisors or lawyers) before making the change to the estate plan
- The change occurred shortly before their passing
- The person who asserted the undue influence limited or stopped communication between the decedent and those who were removed from the will or estate planning documents
- Third parties who spoke with the decedent had no indication that there was any ill will between the decedent and the person or persons removed from the will
Every undue influence case is unique. A judge or jury evaluating this type of case must examine all of the facts of the whole situation to determine whether undue influence occurred. These cases can be difficult to present effectively, but a will contest lawyer may be able to help with this process. Contact Roulet Law Firm, P.A. for more information.
What Happens if a Will Is Voided for Undue Influence?
If a will becomes void because it was the product of undue influence, loved ones cannot simply rewrite the will in any way they would like. Instead, in most circumstances, the will is treated as if it did not exist. If the will does not exist, then an earlier version of a will is effective. The earlier version might not write out the people who challenged the will, or it may have some other, more beneficial treatment.
If only one will was attested, then the laws of the particular state where the decedent resided will go into effect if it is voided. That is, it will be as if the decedent did not write a will at all. In many situations, state law treatment for the division of assets will go to the spouse first and then any children of that relationship. Intestate laws become more complicated if the decedent does not have any of these surviving relatives.
Get Help Ensuring Your Wishes are Followed From an Estate Planning Lawyer
Proper planning can ensure that your wishes are followed and that the risks of someone successfully challenging your trust or will are minimized. For help in getting a plan in place, contact our Minnesota office at (763) 420-5087 or our Florida office at (941) 909-4644 today.
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