Essential Information About Undue Influence in Estate Planning

Undue influence occurs when a testator is unable to exercise independent action and the person exercising the influence makes that person do something against his or her free will. Kind actions and charm are not enough to classify as undue influence. In determining whether undue influence has occurred, courts look towards the vulnerability of the victim, the influencer’s apparent authority, actions used to influence, and the equity of the result. This article will list some essential information about the role that undue influence plays in estate planning in California.

  • Circumstantial Evidence: Parties can use the existence of circumstantial evidence to demonstrate that undue influence exists in a trust or will contest. A case need not be established through “direct” evidence, but instead “circumstantial” evidence can be used to demonstrate that an event occurred. The California legal system has used circumstantial evidence in numerous cases to demonstrate that undue influence has occurred. While still difficult to establish, undue influence cases are easier to prove than some parties might believe. Consequently, parties who believe that undue influence has occurred should not hesitate to contact skilled and experience estate planning attorneys.
  • Codified: The state of California has codified the definition of undue influence, which means that for the purposes of the law, it is easier to determine exactly when the act of undue influence has occurred. This codified definition does not drastically change the concept of undue influence but instead serves to codify previously established concepts. The four-part test for undue influence under California law helps determine more easily whether undue influence existed.
  • Equity is Not Enough: Based on the factors used to determine undue influence, an unfair result by itself is not enough. As a result, individuals can choose to act unfairly in regards to beneficiaries of an estate and this act alone is not enough to establish that undue influence has occurred. As a result, a party that lost money or other things of value does not alone mean that undue influence occurred.
  • Parties Can Shift the Burden of Proof: The party accused of acting under undue influence can shift the burden of proof to establish that the accused party did not act under undue influence. This burden shifting element means that parties accused of undue influence have a defensive tool that can be used to argue undue influence did not occur in a case.
  • A Weak Mental State is Required: To establish the existence of undue influence, a party must demonstrate that an individual was susceptible to being unduly influenced. This susceptibility is an essential element of any undue influence case that must be demonstrated in order for a party to collect damages.
  • Undue Influence Requires a Compelling Reason. To demonstrate that undue influence existed, a party must demonstrate a compelling reason to overturn a Trust or Will. A judge in deciding a case will require a unique and compelling reason to overturn an estate planning decision due to undue influence.

If you believe that undue influence occurred during estate planning, you likely need the experience of a knowledgeable and informed lawyer to explain all of the options available to you so contact our firm today.