and Probate Law Firm
Undue Influence and Estate Planning
Undue influence in the context of estate planning refers to a situation where someone exerts pressure or manipulates another person (typically an elderly or vulnerable individual) to change their will, trust, or other estate planning documents against their true wishes. It’s a form of elder abuse and is considered illegal under elder law in most jurisdictions because it undermines the principle of testamentary freedom, which allows individuals to make their own decisions regarding the distribution of their assets. As a Folsom attorney who specializes in estate planning, I take hard lines against any undue influence that I perceive taking place against an elder.
Here are key points to understand about undue influence in estate planning:
- Signs of Undue Influence: Recognizing undue influence can be challenging, as it often occurs behind closed doors. Some signs that may raise suspicion include abrupt and significant changes to an estate plan, isolation of the testator (the person creating the will or trust) from family and friends, and a sudden and unexplained close relationship with the person exerting influence.
- Vulnerable Individuals: Undue influence is most commonly associated with situations involving elderly individuals or those with diminished mental capacity. Such individuals may be more susceptible to manipulation and coercion.
- Proving Undue Influence: Proving undue influence can be difficult, as it often relies on circumstantial evidence. To establish undue influence, one generally needs to demonstrate that:
- The testator was susceptible to influence due to factors like age, illness, or mental impairment.
- The alleged influencer had the opportunity to exert control over the testator.
- There was a change in the estate plan that benefits the influencer.
- There are suspicious or unexplained circumstances surrounding the changes.
- Legal Consequences: If a court determines that undue influence played a role in the creation of an estate planning document, that document may be invalidated. Legal consequences for the influencer may also include penalties, fines, and criminal charges, depending on the specifics of the matter.
- Preventing Undue Influence: To prevent undue influence in estate planning, individuals should:
- Create their estate plans while they are mentally competent and able to make informed decisions.
- Work with a qualified attorney to ensure their documents are legally sound.
- Share their intentions and wishes with trusted family members or friends to help deter potential undue influencers.
- Have their attorney take steps to document their mental capacity and the absence of undue influence during the estate planning process.
- Family Disputes: Accusations of undue influence can lead to contentious legal battles among family members. It’s essential to consider how your estate plan may affect your family dynamics and consult with an attorney experienced in estate planning to address potential challenges.
- Estate Litigation: If someone believes undue influence was involved in a loved one’s estate planning, they may contest the will or trust in court. Estate litigation can be emotionally and financially draining for all parties involved.
To protect the integrity of your estate planning documents and prevent undue influence, it’s advisable to work with an experienced Folsom estate planning attorney. They can guide you through the process, ensure your wishes are documented clearly, and take steps to minimize the risk of undue influence. If undue influence is present, it will affect not only your wishes for your assets, but will also lead to bitter family disputes and unnecessary litigation fees. If you have any questions about undue influence and estate planning, please contact Thapar Law at 916-579-0605 or send us a message.
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