After a family member dies, there can be a rude awakening when that person’s will is either discovered or submitted to court, and the contents of the will are very different than expected.
Perhaps a new person has been added to the will or had their gift or inheritance expanded, whether that person be another family member, a “friend,” romantic partner, or even an employee. And just as surprising can be finding that, while one gift has suddenly appeared or increased, another person’s inheritance has been minimized or taken out of the will altogether.
Individuals are generally free to devise their property any way that they would like in their Pennsylvania will (subject to rules in place to protect surviving spouses), and they can amend or change their wills like this up to the day that they pass away if they so choose. But when another person exhibits “undue influence” over the testator (the creator) of a will in Pennsylvania to change the will, then a Pennsylvania probate court will refuse to honor those ill-gotten changes and should honor the provisions of the previous will instead.
What Undue Influence Is in Pennsylvania
While you may have your own ideas about what “undue influence” means, a PA probate court is going to be using a specific definition of that term in deciding whether to enforce or void a will. Just arguing that a deceased’s recent girlfriend or employee doesn’t deserve a gift and persuaded the deceased to change the will won’t cut it on its own.
Instead, undue influence is defined as influence or power which subverted the intent of the testator at the time of the execution of the will, and that the will would not have been changed had the person not subverted the testator’s intent.
Ways to Show Undue Influence
Again, a simple request by a would-be beneficiary to have the will changed in his or her favor will likely not be enough on its own to show undue influence.
A PA probate court will look for wrongful actions by the alleged influencer which either prejudiced the mind of the testator, destroyed his or her ability to make their own decision, or acted as a restraint on them which led to the change of the will.
Such wrongful actions that could lead to a undue influence finding might include:
- Wrongful imprisonment (including in the testator’s own home or bedroom)
- Fraud (lying to the testator in order to get the will changed, e.g. lies about a former or current beneficiary)
- Brainwashing of the testator
- Inordinate flattery
- Physical coercion
- Mental coercion
The Process of Showing Undue Influence
When a proponent of a will seeks to have the will admitted into a PA probate court, other parties who may object to the will based on undue influence or some other reason can raise these arguments to the court via their lawyer.
The court presumes that undue influence does not exist, which means that the burden of persuasion will be on the party contesting the will to show that the will or some portions of it are indeed the product of undue influence. If it can be shown by clear and convincing evidence that undue influence was at play, the court may ultimately choose to void the will and instead enforce a previous will.
Get Help From a PA Probate Litigation Attorney Today
At The Martin Law Firm, P.C., our probate litigation team is committed to serving your needs in a compassionate and efficient manner. Call us today for a no-hassle consultation regarding any questions you have about probate litigation in Pennsylvania.