Undue influence occurs when someone in a position of power or authority coerces or pressures another individual to make or change a will. This is one of the reasons why DIY estate plans are not the way to go; estate plans generated by a licensed attorney are far less likely to be successfully contested in probate court.
As estate planning attorneys, we work closely with our clients and have a good idea of when undue influence may be at play. As a result, we create will and trust documents that are legally binding, so malicious or self-interested parties are far less likely to contest them – or be successful if they try to challenge them in court.
Proving Undue Influence in California Is Not Easy
Undue influence (UI) is one of the most common reasons heirs or beneficiaries go through the painstaking, lengthy, stressful, and expensive process of contesting a will.
What’s Required to Prove Undue Influence on Estate Plans?
There are several requirements and an energy-demanding process to prove undue influence was a factor in the will or trust in question.
You must qualify to contest the will
- Be 18 years or older.
- Legitimately fall into the legal lineup of intestate succession
- File your objection within 120 days after a will is admitted to probate (if it’s moved to probate).
- You are named as an heir or beneficiary in the current will/trust.
- You were named as an heir/beneficiary in a prior will/trust.
- You are a creditor owed a fair share of the money.
If you qualify to contest the will, hire a probate attorney. You will be put through the wringer to prove undue influence or coercion of some kind in the state of California. An attorney keeps the process as efficient and streamlined as possible and helps to mitigate emotional or complicated relationship dynamics that impede the court process or – quite simply – have no place in the legal arena.
Proof of the following must be incontrovertible
This is the most challenging part; if the estate plans were drawn up years ago and when the person was in a relatively sound mind, there is almost no way to prove undue influence was at stake. Undue influence is seen most commonly as a form of elder abuse.
One or more of the following must be inarguable in the court’s eyes:
The victim was vulnerable
Victims are considered vulnerable when they are in a state of proven physical or mental decline. So, the mid to late stage of a terminal illness, mental illness, or age/dementia-related mental deterioration. If a parent or loved one has Alzheimer’s or dementia without a will/trust in place, hire an estate planning attorney. Working with a professional legitimizes the process and minimizes the risk of someone else contesting the will or saying undue influence was a factor.
An influencer has some kind of power or authority
If the influencer has some type of power over the individual or has gained supreme trust, the case has more validity. Caregivers are often viewed in this way, as is a child or grandchild that lives with or close to the deceased as they were in a state of decline.
Suspicious pre-death actions by suspect
Undue influence is easier to exert if the victim is isolated or removed from family, friends, or former caregivers. The suspect may also have control of the victim’s finances or legal decision-making (such as a POA or trustee). This is why selecting the right POA or trustee is crucial to estate planning. They have a tremendous amount of authority. If nobody in the family quite fits the bill, an estate attorney is an ideal choice for both.
The result of the suspect’s actions
Finally, the court looks at the overall results of the suspect’s actions. For example, if a senior citizen draws up a brand new will within the last year or so of their life, and it grossly varies from an original – it’s suspicious. So, too, is any will where the suspect is the primary beneficiary of the estate, and other heirs and beneficiaries wind up with little to nothing.
Contesting a Will Impacted By Undue Influence
Do those things ring true for you? Then it’s time to contest the will.
Hire a probate attorney when it comes to proving undue influence
Contesting a will or estate plan is a complicated business. However, filing the case is only the first step. It requires specific documentation, evidence from other witnesses (including physicians, mental health experts, etc.), and more to convince the court a will is invalid due to undue influence.
Hire a probate attorney to ensure you do everything right and to have continuous access to the information, support, and evidence you’ll need to solidify your case.
Make sure you have the current will
Some people create more than one will, and the court is interested in the most current version. If you feel the will is not current, it’s grounds for contesting it.
Determine whether it’s worth it to you/others
Finally, determine whether it’s worth it. In some cases, the attorney fees and emotionally draining process of contesting a will aren’t worth what you or others might gain. But, again, a consultation with an estate planning attorney, even if you don’t hire them, is worth it to determine whether it makes sense to move forward.
Tseng Law Firm Can Help Prove Undue Influence in CA
Are you positive your loved one was manipulated or taken advantage of? Or do you suspect family members or loved ones may contest your will? Tseng Law Firm is here to help. We can review your case and determine what’s required to move forward. Or, we’ll work with you to create estate plans that will hold up to future scrutiny. Contact us to schedule a free consultation.