Protecting your Inheritance: How Undue Influence can Overcome a Loved One’s Wishes

July 6, 2022  |  Tyler W. Eubank

At the time a loved one passes away, there are many considerations. Funeral arrangements, packing personal belongings, and, if they left one, reading the will. In the best case, the will is as expected and divides any assets to family, friends, charities, and any other entity your loved one cared for in life. But what if, for example, the will leaves the bulk of your loved ones assets to their estate planner? Or their neighbor who stopped by every day? Or your sketchy third cousin who only appeared when they found out your loved one was in poor health? While there is not always something nefarious going on, where a will is suspicious in that way, it may have been created using undue influence.

Undue influence is when another person uses influence to such a degree that the free agency of your loved one, referred to as the “testator,” is destroyed or overcome. Then the desires of the influencer are inserted in place of the testator.

Proving that a will was created using undue influence invalidates it. If you wanted to challenge the validity of a will under this theory, in order to establish undue influence, you must prove by clear and convincing evidence that at the time the will was made, the influencer’s will overpowered the testator’s will, resulting in a written testament that expresses the intent of the influencer. In other words, an individual is subject to undue influence when they are influenced to a point that they become a puppet of the influencer.

There are various types of evidence you could present to support your claim of undue influence. In considering if a testator’s free will has been overcome, the courts may consider qualities such as their age, intelligence, experience, physical health, mental health, and strength of character. Circumstantial evidence that may indicate undue influence include an opportunity to exert undue influence, active participation in the creation of the will, a confidential relationship between the influencer and the testator, disinheritance of someone who would have likely been named, singularity of the will provisions, and exercise of influence to make the will.

Examining Circumstantial Evidence

While proving the factors listed below does not necessarily mean your claim will succeed, it is important to provide as much evidence as possible to support the idea that your loved one did not divide their assets upon their own free will.

  • Active Participation: The active participation of another individual in the creation of a will and its provisions, especially a beneficiary, may be used to support a claim of undue influence. Actions such as selecting an estate planning attorney, driving the testator to the attorney, and driving the testator to deposit the will may prove the existence of active participation.
  • Opportunity: Opportunity refers more specifically to the ability of another person to influence the testator. This could mean seeing them frequently, but it also concerns the level of isolation involved. If the testator sees multiple people and has multiple avenues of support, it is difficult for undue influence to be exerted. In contrast, if the testator lives with an individual and only relies on that one person for their daily needs, that presents opportunity for undue influence.
  • Confidential Relationship: While there are many kinds of confidential relationships (doctor-patient, attorney-client, etc.) and they do not automatically prove undue influence, the existence of a confidential relationship may support a claim of undue influence. Evidence that the testator relief on the alleged influencer in financial and business matters may constitute a confidential relationship. Additionally, evidence of a confidential relationship between blood relatives may actually negate a claim of undue influence. For example, if a mother left the bulk of her estate to only one child, but it was known that that child was her favorite child and they had a close relationship, a claim of undue influence would be refuted by the mother’s clear preference.
  • Disinheritance: One beneficiary receiving more than other beneficiaries is also insufficient to support a claim of undue influence. Inequality of distribution, no matter how immense, will not prove undue influence. However, a drastic change from previous testamentary intentions may support a claim of undue influence, especially if the alleged influencer receives a greater share of the estate following the change.
  • Singularity: Singularity of the will provisions focuses on the nature and extent of the changes in the will from the testator’s previous will. While there is no one definition as to what it means for a will to be singular, a will having only one beneficiary does not necessarily lead to a determination of undue influence.
  • Exercise of Influence: The actual exercise of influence in creating a will is necessary to support a finding of undue influence, but also does not necessitate such a finding. In other words, none of the above factors matter unless you can prove that another person actually influenced the testator to make or change their will.

These questions of undue influence are not uncommon and can be difficult to handle on your own while dealing with a loss. BGS attorneys are experienced in sorting out these legal matters and can help put your mind at ease. Contact us today with questions and concerns.