When a parent dies, the grief and loss can be devastating. But matters can become even more traumatic when a family member learns they have been cut out of the parent’s will or other estate planning for reasons that seem suspicious and confusing. To be sure, there is no law in Pennsylvania requiring that a parent financially provides for an adult child either during the parent’s life or via a will, and thus a parent is free to disinherit a child as they see fit.
But, when the disinheritance is the result of another’s fraudulent or otherwise illegal action – or the result of a parent’s lack of mental capacity – the adult child may have legal options in probate court to fight for the inheritance that would have otherwise rightfully been theirs.
Undue Influence and Fraud
When a third party, such as another family member or even a caretaker or “friend,” uses excessive influence to get a person to change his or her will in favor of him (and at the expense of another person, such as a child), a Pennsylvania may disallow the change in the will and enforce the previous will based on the concept of undue influence.
To show undue influence, the party who was wrongfully disinherited will need to prove to a Pennsylvania court by clear and convincing evidence that there was an undue influence in the form of one of the following factors, among others:
- Imprisonment of body or mind of the parent
- Fraud carried out against the parent (e.g. an attorney or other will preparer deceives the parent about what is in the will)
- Threats made against the parent
- Inordinate flattery of the parent
- Physical or mental coercion of the parent
Courts are more likely to find undue influence when the alleged influencer was in a close and confidential relationship with the parent and/or the parent had a weakened intellect, but this is not necessary to win an undue influence argument in probate court.
Lack of Mental Capacity
In some cases, a parent will make a second will late in life which replaces an earlier will. Although a parent does have the right to create as many updated or new wills as he or she likes, a will is only legally valid if the maker of the will have what is called testamentary capacity at the time the will is made.
A person who is mentally incompetent will be deemed not to have a testamentary capacity and thus a will created by a person when they are mentally incompetent will not be valid and will thus not replace an earlier will.
Similarly, Pennsylvania courts have held that a person suffering from an “insane delusion” – essentially believing something to be real which has no basis in reality – cannot create a valid will. Thus, if a parent cuts a child out of a will based on an irrational belief about that child (e.g. that the child is trying to kill them), that change to the will could be invalidated in probate court.
Speak to an experienced probate attorney about your situation.
Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Probate Litigation Attorney
At the Martin Law Firm, P.C., we work with men and women of all backgrounds in litigating probate matters to achieve fair and just results. If you believe you were wrongly left out of a will due to undue influence, fraud, or some other reason, contact us today to discuss your legal options.