Undue influence occurs when a person in a position of power or influence over another person uses that position to heavily influence or coerce the creation of a Will in favor of the influencer. For example, when a parent passes away with four children and only one child is named in the Will to receive the deceased parent’s estate, the other children may feel as though the Will does not represent want the parent wanted. In other words, the children expected the parent to divide the estate equally among them. While a parent is free to name some or all the children to receive the estate, if the parent’s decision to remove the other children is a result of one child’s undue influence over the parent, the other children have legal grounds to contest the Will.
It is important to note that undue influence requires a great deal of influence; simple suggestions are not enough to meet the standard. It must be shown that the influence was so great that it was enough to destroy the free agency of the person making the Will. Oftentimes, this influencer is a family member, close friend, associate, or caregiver.
HOW TO PROVE UNDUE INFLUENCE
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 Pennsylvania 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.
Undue influence can be proven in two ways. First, undue influence can be proven directly, by using evidence to show the acts did prejudice the person’s mind or destroy his free agency. Second, it can be proven indirectly. Indirect proof is the most common way to prove undue influence. To do this, a person must establish by clear and convincing evidence the following:
- A person is in a “confidential relationship” with the person making the Will;
- The person receives a “substantial benefit” under the proposed Will; and
- The person making the Will had a “weakened intellect” at or around the time the Will was signed.
When all three of these elements are established by clear and convincing evidence, the burden will shift to the alleged influencer to prove the absence of undue influence by clear and convincing evidence.
Clear and convincing evidence is the highest burden in civil trials. Clear and convincing evidence requires witnesses to be credible, the facts distinctly remembered, and details narrated exactly and in due order.
DEFINING CONFIDENTIAL RELATIONSHIP
Courts have determined that a confidential relationship exists whenever a person is in a close relationship with another to inspire confidence that he or she is an advisor and counselor and will act in good faith for the other’s interest. A confidential relationship usually exists when one person occupies a superior position over another intellectually, physically, or morally with the opportunity to use the superiority to the other’s disadvantage. One clear is example is when a person gives a power of attorney to another. Other examples can exist when a person is shown to have spent a great deal of time with a person or assisted with the person’s care. It is important to establish that the relationship created a trust and reliance and a corresponding opportunity to abuse that trust for personal gain on the other. The confidential relationship must be proven to exist at the time the decedent signed the Will.
DEFINING SUBSTANTIAL BENEFIT
There is no clear-cut rule on what the phrase “substantial benefit” means. The determination must be made on a case by case basis and should compare the current Will with a previous Will or what a family member may receive pursuant to the Pennsylvania intestacy law. For example, if the influencer caused a parent to remove three children from the Will, then the influencer probably received a substantial benefit since the influencer will now receive the entire estate instead of an equal share of the estate with the other children. Some courts have used terms such as the “bulk” of the estate or a “large and considerable benefit” to explain their rationale or justification for substantial benefit determinations. On the other hand, if the influencer caused a parent to increase the influencer’s share by a small amount, the element of substantial benefit may not be met.
DEFINING WEAKENED INTELLECT
The term “weakened intellect” does not rise to the level of lack of testamentary capacity. Weakened intellect is easier to prove. To prove weakened intellect, relevant testimony would include the decedent’s mental condition over a period up to and including the time of signing of the Will. The most important evidence is the testimony of the decedent’s treating physicians who observed the decedent within a reasonable length of time before and after the signing of the Will.
SIGNS OF UNDUE INFLUENCE
One of the most common indicators of undue influence is when a person creates or significantly alters the contents of a Will after spending time with the influencer. There are some characteristics that indicate the potential for undue influence.
- A loved one’s increased and unusual reliance on the influencer
- Increased isolation of the loved one, often facilitated by the influencer
- Sudden changes in the loved one’s financial accounts or accessibility
- Decisions by the influencer for the loved one that indicate a conflict of interest
- Changes made to a Will when a person experienced periods of confusion, memory loss, or dementia
- Heavy participation by the influencer in the drafting of the Will
- Secrecy and expediency by the influencer in the creation or alteration of the Will
- The loved one stops communicating with other family member
- The influencer prohibits visits by other family members
- The influencer frequently moves the person around to different living environments
- The loved one is unaware of where the original Will and/or Trust is located
- The family member visits an estate planning attorney recommended by the influencer
- The loved one visits a financial advisor recommended by the influencer
ACTIONS THAT CAN LEAD TO UNDUE INFLUENCE
- An influencer lying to the loved one about another family member
- Inordinate flattery
- Physical coercion
- Mental coercion
PROCESS FOR PROVING UNDUE INFLUENCE
To prove undue influence, a person must first be considered a “party in interest”. A party in interest is someone who is aggrieved by a decree of the Register of Wills. In the context of undue influence, a party in interest is usually one whose share in the estate is smaller than had the alleged undue influence not occurred.
Before a Will is offered for probate in the Register of Wills’ office, a party in interest may initiate an attack on the Will by filing a caveat with the Register of Wills. The caveat is simply a request for the Register of Wills not to probate the Will. If the Will was already accepted by the Register of Wills, an individual can contest the Will by filing a petition for citation on appeal. Experienced attorneys in these matters can decide which facts should be asserted to set forth a valid claim.
The legal proceedings for contesting a Will based on a claim of undue influence are similar to civil actions. The parties can engage in discovery which may include written interrogatories, written request for production of documents, subpoenas or authorizations for the release of medical records from treating physicians, and depositions of parties and witnesses. Witnesses may include the scrivener (the person who wrote the Will), subscribing witnesses (those who witnessed the signing of the Will), and others who may have personal knowledge of the facts and circumstances leading up to the signing of the Will or the mental capacity of the decedent.
The Court will presume 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 or order the estate to be distributed pursuant to the Pennsylvania intestacy laws.
WILL CONTEST AND UNDUE INFLUENCE – THE MARTIN LAW FIRM, P.C.
If you believe that a Will is not valid and you suspect undue influence, call the Martin Law Firm for a free case evaluation. An experienced attorney will discuss the situation and events giving rise to a potential undue influence claim, evaluate the likelihood of success, and help you understand the legal process. Call us today at 215-646-3980.