What is Undue Influence?

Undue influence occurs when a person tricks, or pressures a friend, or family member into writing, or changing a will or trust document. Generally, this happens to elderly people. For example, a widow may meet with her attorney and establish an estate plan in her seventies. Her trust document divides her assets equally among her children.

Sadly, one of the siblings “influences” mom as her mental capacity declines. Due to this pressure, mom meets with her attorney and rewrites the trust document leaving the majority of the estate to only one offspring. Basically, this disinherits the other siblings.

One year later mom passes away and heirs are shocked to see the changes in the estate planning documents.  So, when a dishonest family member takes advantage of an elderly parent’s declining mental faculties, there is a probable case of undue influence.

Who May Contest A Will Or Trust?

Michigan Law allows those who have a legal interest in the estate to contest a will or trust. For example, if your friend was disinherited by a relative, you have no legal standing to contest the will or trust. However, your friend may have legal grounds, depending on the relationship to the deceased. The following have legal standing to contest a will or trust document:

  • Any beneficiaries of the estate
  • Fiduciaries of the estate
  • Relatives that were disinherited
  • Anyone that would receive more if the will or trust is found to be invalid
  • Any relatives or groups with a legal interest in the estate

How to Prove Undue Influence

An experienced estate planning and probate attorney will guide you through the complicated process of proving undue influence. Basically, there are three components to an undue influence case.

  1. The perpetrator had access to the victim. For example, did an unscrupulous relative, or a home healthcare worker manipulate your elderly parent into changing their estate documents? Did they have access to your parent?
  2. Did the perpetrator benefit financially from your parent changing their will or trust? Did your parent sign a Quit Claim Deed and place property in the perpetrator’s name? Did your parent sign over the car title to anyone?
  3. Was the perpetrator in a fiduciary relationship with your loved one?

Michigan Law requires even more than the three components listed above.  Nelson v Wiggins, 172 Mich 191; 137 NW 623 (1912) states what a Michigan court must show to prove undue influence. The statute states: “it must be shown that the grantor was subjected to threats, misrepresentation, undue flattery, fraud, or physical or moral coercion sufficient to overcome volition, destroy free agency, and impel the grantor to act against his inclination and free will. Motive, opportunity, or even ability to control, in the absence of affirmative evidence that it was exercised, are not sufficient.”  To sum up, when a vulnerable person is robbed of their free will that is grounds for undue influence.

What Is Lack of Capacity?

A lack of capacity refers to mental competence. If an elderly parent suffers from dementia they lack the mental awareness to enter into any legal agreements. Anyone suffering significant cognitive decline may not sign a will or trust document. If they do it may be thrown out when challenged in court. Of course, many elderly people have sharp minds and may change legal documents.

How to Prevent Future Undue Influence Claims when Setting Up Your Estate Plans

Setting up an estate plan requires the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney. First of all, do not take your heirs with you. Of course, if you are married, or have a significant other, they may join you. If your estate is being equally divided among your heirs, there should be no future difficulties. However, if you anticipate problems sometimes a mental competency test is advised. This prevents future claims of “undue influence.” A medical professional may do this exam and you may include it with your documents. Most importantly, if you are involved in any current undue influence case contact an experienced family law attorney that specializes in estate planning and probate issues.

Other State Laws on Undue Influence

Laws surrounding undue influence vary from state to state. Some states which experience significant volume in probate and estate cases, such as Florida, have more detailed and specific laws surrounding this. Because the State of Florida requires all probate cases to go through the court system, they have specific guidelines regarding both the probate process and what constitutes undue influence. These laws and guidelines were put into place in order to protect the citizens of Florida from being taken advantage of by family members or other interested parties during the drafting of wills and last testaments.

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