Undue Influence in Wills and Probate Cases

Mon, Aug 13, 2012

Probate

Undue influence is a legal term that applies to many different situations. Probate lawyers, like SmithLaw, hear the term quite often.

Merriam-Webster defines undue influence as:

“such influence over another often presumed from the existence of very close relationships as destroys his free agency in the eye of the law: such influence as prevents a person from exercising his own will and substitutes in its place the will of another (as by constraint, machination, or urgency of persuasion)”

Oftentimes, some family members claim other family members or various friends or personnel applied undue influence to someone while they were creating or changing their will. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they just do not like the will’s terms. (Sometimes attorneys are even accused of using undue influence over their clients.) Probate lawyers and other legal professionals have to work extra in these complicated cases to help determine who is correct.

Undue influence in probate cases could occur in various ways, including:

  • when a favored relative convinces the deceased to leave everything to them through more than gentle persuasion.
  • or perhaps when a scammer convinces the deceased to change their will inappropriately.

The ramifications of undue influence in a probate case can be vast–ranging from bad feelings to financial devastation when expected money does not come. However, proving undue influence is usually difficult and could be more expensive than the actual inheritance. It is prudent for those involved to do some soul-searching to be sure that pursuing an undue influence case is right for their situation.

Proving undue influence requires that the will be shown to have been changed or produced under extreme duress and completely against someone’s true will. This is more than someone being so nice to someone else (genuinely or otherwise) that the deceased decided it would be a good idea to change their will. It is also different than someone leaving more than originally planned in their will to a caretaker or good friend who provided for them in their time of need. It also does not usually involve cases where someone left more in their will to a charity or church than the family would like.

Many people make strange and imprudent decisions in their wills. And perhaps they were influenced in some way, but unless this influence is strenuous or extremely inappropriate, rarely is undue influence going to be proven. The person would have to have lost all their choices and perhaps have been harshly forced to change their will in order to remain safe. You sometimes hear about caretakers, like home health aides or housekeepers using undue influence to get elderly people to change their will by isolating them and making their life extremely difficult if they do not comply. This is a sad occurrence that could easily happen if family members were not always around or trusted the wrong person.

Investigations in undue influence cases might focus on previous wills, known family relationships, other documents that list beneficiaries, the deceased’s mental and physical health, and who helped change the will—including attorneys and family members.

Florida State Statutes provides rules for dealing with undue influence in its chapters on Estates and Trusts (731-739). Chapter 733.107 specifically addresses undue influence in probate cases.  There it places the burden on proof on the one contesting the will. If you are interested in contesting a will, start gathering documents and speaking with others involved to gain the proof you need to contest the will. Also, be sure the benefits outweigh the risks—the risk to your financial and familial health.

For further reading, check out these undue influence cases:

Image: Some rights reserved by ell brown

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