Undue Influence on Wills

Following the death of a testator, wills may be contested for many reasons.  There may be a lack of clarity in the will, with some of the provisions vaguely defined.  The will may not cover all possible scenarios, such as the death of certain beneficiaries.  Furthermore, family members may feel that they’ve been treated unfairly, and in some cases they may suspect undue influence.

Undue influence is a serious matter, though it isn’t easy to prove.  In circumstances of undue influence, the testator is thought to have been excessively pressured, manipulated, or coerced in writing the will.  Typically, the will becomes skewed in favor of a certain person or people, at the expense of other beneficiaries.

What are some potential signs of undue influence?

Unusual behavior from the testator.  A recent example from the news is an heiress who, according to her relatives, abruptly cut off ties with various family members towards the end of her life, and strangely left two wills, written several weeks apart: one leaving her fortune mostly to family members, and the other cutting them out entirely and leaving a large portion of the money to an attorney, an accountant, and a charitable foundation run by both.  Relatives see this odd behavior as a sign of undue influence.

Vulnerability.  In a number of cases, the testator may rely on certain individuals for care; these individuals may use their power over the testator and their heavy involvement in the testator’s day-to-day life to exert undue influence on how the will is written.  The testator may be afraid of them in some way or unusually reluctant to refuse their wishes.  They may also isolate the testator from other people in various ways.

Issues of mental capacity.  Even if the testator isn’t officially mentally incapacitated, they may still be prone to forgetfulness or confusion, particularly if they’re more advanced in years.  These states of mind may be used to the advantage of certain individuals.

Motive.  The individuals thought to exert undue influence usually have some obvious motive and would benefit from changes to the will.

Sometimes cases of undue influence may seem obvious, but in fact it’s difficult to definitively prove in court.  There are many instances when testators choose of their own volition to leave most of their estate to a certain individual; other people, especially family members, may be upset as a result, and latch onto the idea that the testator couldn’t possibly have been acting of his or her free will.  To sort through a case that seems to involve undue influence, you would need the assistance of expert estate lawyers.

If you’re currently embroiled in a dispute involving suspicions of undue influence, contact us to discuss the case.  One piece of advice that we’ll leave you with now is to not wait until after the death of a testator.  If you feel as if a loved one may be facing pressure from someone in regards to the writing of a will, address the matter when they’re still alive.