In the normal course of events, the terms of a decedent’s Last Will and Testament are made public shortly after his/her death. Usually, the terms are not surprising; however, occasionally the terms of the Will are not at all what was expected. In fact, it may be that the entire Will does not sound like something the decedent would have written. When that is the case, you could have the basis for a Will contest if you believe that those terms are the result of someone exerting “undue influence” over the Testator. Here’s a general overview of how to prove undue influence in a California Will contest.
Probate is the legal process that is typically required after the death of an individual. Probate is intended to serve several functions, including the authentication of a Last Will and Testament submitted on behalf of the decedent. If the Will is authenticated, the terms of that document will then be used to determine how the decedent’s estate assets are distributed. Probate is also when any challenges to a Will are litigated. To challenge a Will, a contestant must allege (and ultimately prove to prevail) at least one of the available legal grounds on which a Will may be invalidated. In the State of California, the available grounds include:
- Lack of testamentary intent or capacity
- Undue influence
What Is Undue Influence and How Do I Prove It?
Alleging undue influence as a ground for invalidating a Will is fairly common. Proving it though, can be more difficult than it sounds. In general, undue influence refers to a situation where the Testator was being controlled or influenced by another person to such and extent that the decisions made when creating the Will were not truly those of the Testator. Allegations of undue influence frequently arise when the decedent was isolated during the time the Will was executed and being cared for predominantly, or even exclusively, by one individual. If that person then inherits a considerable amount under the terms of the Will it can make other beneficiaries and/or heirs suspicious.
Courts, however, are typically hesitant to invalidate what purports to be the wishes of a decedent. As a rule, the law allows us all the free will to dispose of our estate assets in any manner we wish – as long as we understand what we are doing at the time. With that in mind, simply showing that a family member, or caregiver, had a close relationship to the Testator, or had a significant amount of influence over the Testator is insufficient to prove a claim of undue influence.
Until recently, the definition of “undue influence” in California was somewhat murky. In 2014, however, a definition finally emerged in the California Welfare and Institutions Code § 15610.70 which defines undue influence broadly as “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.” Even with a concrete definition, it remains difficult to prove – particularly because you must prove that the undue influence occurred in the past at the time the Will was executed. The difficult nature of a Will contest is one of the many reasons why you should consult with an experienced attorney immediately if you have suspicions about circumstances surrounding the execution of a decedent’s Will.
Please download our FREE estate planning checklist. If you have additional questions or concerns about how to create an estate plan to minimize the problems with undue influence, contact us at theNorthern California Center for Estate Planning & Elder Law by calling (916)-437-3500 or by filling out our online contact form.
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