What is “undue influence” in a California trust contest?

California law allows those hurt by undue influence to declare a trust invalid

Perhaps the most widely known cause of rendering an estate plan invalid is "undue influence." In essence, undue influence occurs when someone in a position of authority or trust obtains all or a great portion of an estate through unlawful means.

Beneficiaries and caretakers in close contact with an aging relative are in the best position to exert undue influence. The methods used to influence a testator can vary, however, and are often not initially obvious to others. For example, a caretaker may subtly convince an aging relative that he or she could not care for that individual unless some financial needs are met. Abuse or neglect could occur unless the caretaker is rewarded through an inheritance. One beneficiary could speak negatively about another, convincing the testator that others would only waste an inheritance. Many more examples could be given.

Declaring a trust invalid through undue influence

In California, it is possible to declare a trust invalid if a beneficiary has used undue influence on the deceased in order to obtain assets that would otherwise have gone to others.

But what does it mean, under California law, to "unduly influence" someone? A beneficiary cannot contest a trust simply because he or she does not like how the assets were distributed; there must be a legal ground to contest a trust. In addition, a person who is of sound mind can certainly change beneficiaries if he or she chooses to. A beneficiary can also develop a close relationship or even change a testator's mind without it qualifying as undue influence.

California law

There are two ways under California law to declare a trust invalid based on undue influence. There is a presumption that undue influence occurred if an interested party can show that:

  • There was a confidential relationship between the testator and the influencer;
  • The influencer obtained the trust; and
  • The influencer obtained undue benefit from the trust.

In addition, in 2014 a new law regarding undue influence went into effect in California. The California Probate Code now holds that undue influence is "excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person's free trust and results in inequity." Under this method, the person asking for the invalidation must prove the following four elements:

  • The victim was vulnerable;
  • The influencer had authority over the testator or appeared to;
  • The influencer took actions or tactics to influence the victim; and
  • The result of the undue influence resulted in an unfair outcome.

An experienced litigator can help

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be difficult. That difficulty multiplies when someone in a position of trust abused that privilege to harm the recently deceased and their family.

Families who believe a relative suffered from undue influence should arrange for a free legal consultation with one of the experienced litigators at the Buffington Law Firm to discuss their situation and get legal help moving forward, including potential legal grounds to contest a trust.

Keywords: Estate plan, undue influence, will contest, trust contest