When might families suspect that undue influence has affected a will?

On Behalf of | May 5, 2024 | Estate Planning |

Families tend to respect the terms that individuals set in their wills. The presence of estate planning documents during the probate process usually indicates that there’s less risk of conflict. Unfortunately, sometimes the estate planning documents themselves become a source of dispute.

Family members can potentially take legal action in probate court when they question the validity of estate planning documents. There are only a limited number of circumstances that might justify contesting or challenging a will after someone’s death.

A belief that someone has exerted undue influence on the testator is one of those scenarios. When might surviving family members or beneficiaries have reason to take legal action over claims of undue influence?

Undue influence claims require specific circumstances

To successfully pursue a claim of undue influence as part of a probate contest, family members need to have evidence of certain key details. First and foremost, they must establish that the testator was vulnerable. Many older adults, including those with medical challenges due to age, are potentially vulnerable because of their need for support.

The concerned survivors then need to prove that someone who benefited from the estate was in a position to use their relationship with the testator for personal gain. If a beneficiary of the estate acted as a caregiver in the last years of someone’s life, they might potentially abuse the authority and access that comes with that role to influence the estate plan.

Typically, questions about the terms of the estate are also crucial. If the caregiver beneficiary received the same inheritance as everyone else and the documents existed for years before the testator required support, then the courts may not agree that someone exerted undue influence on the estate.

However, if a caregiver received more of an inheritance than they would have previously and the testator made changes while relying on that person for support, then that might raise questions about the influence the caregiver or close family member exerted on the testator. Especially when there were drastic changes to the estate plan that benefited the caregiver, the circumstances could meet the necessary standard for a claim of undue influence.

What happens after a claim?

If family members or beneficiaries successfully convince the courts that undue influence affected the terms of an estate plan, the courts can potentially set aside the compromised documents. After doing so, the courts could uphold older documents or might treat the estate as though someone died without an estate plan if they did not have any prior documents.

Families worried about the impact that the unethical conduct of someone who had access to a vulnerable family member could have on others may need to consider pursuing probate litigation to challenge an estate plan. Taking an undue influence issue to probate court could help uphold the true legacy intentions of a decedent.