What is Undue Influence in the Context of Estate Planning?

There are several grounds upon which you, or another interested party, can contest the validity of an estate planning document such as a last will and testament, trust, or beneficiary designation. One of the most common reasons for a will being challenged in court is due to allegations of undue influence on the testator (person writing the will). This blog will explore this important topic that sometimes results in complex, costly, and messy court battles.

Who Can Contest the Validity of a Will?

Generally, anyone with a “sufficient interest” in the matter who will likely be affected by the outcome of the litigation has standing to contest a will. This usually consists of family, friends, and loved ones of the decedent. 

What is Undue Influence, Anyway?

Money motivates many unsavory and untrustworthy individuals to do devious things to turn a profit. As there is usually money to be given away from a decedent’s estate, some of these bad actors persuade elderly estate planners to leave them a sizable inheritance in wills and other documents that direct how assets are to be distributed after their death. More specifically, under influence is present when the actions of one person result in “over-persuasion, duress, force, coercion, or artful or fraudulent contrivances to such a degree that there is destruction of the free agency and will power of the one making the will.”

Presumption of Undue Influence

One way the state of Florida has attempted to protect the elderly is by allowing the plaintiff in a will contest for undue influence to shift the burden of proof to the alleged wrongdoer. If these three conditions are met, then you have likely caused a presumption of undue influence:

  • The alleged wrongdoer substantially benefited from the will (or other estate planning document)
  • The beneficiary in question had confidential relationship with the testator
  • The beneficiary in question was active in the procurement of the will

The third prong is typically the most difficult to satisfy in court. There are several conditions that must be met for it to be shown that the beneficiary whom you allege exerted undue influence was, indeed, active in the procurement of the document. If you are not able to shift the burden of proof, you may still be successful in showing that undue influence was present.

The courts recognize that providing clear and convincing evidence that undue influence was present is not realistic, so circumstantial evidence is often enough for a successful contest. Still, to be successful, you need to present a significant amount of evidence—medical records, financial documents, and earlier estate planning documents are often needed. 

What are Some Clues that Your Loved One Suffered From Undue Influence?

There are some common threads among undue influence cases. If your loved one had a will that, over the years, stayed more-or-less the same but changed dramatically shortly before his or her death, it’s possible that undue influence was present when the will was amended. It should further your suspicions if it was changed to benefit someone who was never particularly close with your loved one or who entered his or her life suddenly and mysteriously.

If you received far less in a will than you expected, it is natural to feel a little disappointed. However, this alone is not enough to contest the will altogether. Contesting a will by alleging undue influence requires a comprehensive understanding of probate court, which our firm can provide. We would be honored to hold someone accountable who took advantage of your loved one during their most vulnerable time. Get in touch with our team by calling 305-285-0285. If you happen to get our answering machine, we will get back to you.

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Zamora, Hillman & Villavicencio

Our firm deals with legal matters involving your loved ones, and our familial operation is prepared to give you caring and effective counsel during what might be a difficult or emotional time.

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