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Undue Influence in Trust and Estate Litigation

Undue Influence is a situation in which someone, often a sick or very elderly person, is induced to make changes to their estate plan or otherwise convey property when such action does not really reflect the person’s wishes or intentions. At Buffington Law Firm, our trust litigation attorneys have successfully dealt with many cases that have involved trusts that were sabotaged by someone exercising Undue Influence against an ill or very elderly person.

1. What is Undue Influence? Cases involving Undue Influence are one of the most common forms of Trust disputes. Undue Influence occurs when a person who suffers a lack of mental vigor is pressured by a usually younger or stronger person into either conveying assets to the stronger person, or changing the elderly person’s estate plan for the benefit of that person. An alternative scenario may involve a conveyance of a real property parcel by the elderly person, under pressure from a relative.

Undue Influence is often misunderstood. Many people, even many attorneys, believe that Undue Influence can only occur when the person being influenced suffers from advanced dementia or otherwise lacks testamentary and mental capacity. In fact, this is not so. Certainly, dementia is one of the possible conditions that can make Undue Influence possible. But it can also occur under a much broader range of conditions. Often, ill or elderly persons simply lack the mental stamina to resist pressure from relatives to sign Trust amendments or similar documents which do not, in fact, represent their true wishes. In other cases that our firm has handled, an elderly person was literally on his deathbed and could not possibly read, let alone comprehend, the trust amendment that he was being asked to sign. While no dementia or Alzheimer’s was involved in this situation, this person was plainly the victim of Undue Influence. When our firm brought litigation this fact was eventually acknowledged by everyone.

Under California law, there is a presumption of Undue Influence when a party who is afflicted with mental weakness or a lack of mental vigor or who lacks capacity enters into a transaction that is favorable to a stronger party upon whom the grantor is dependent. [Longmire v. Kruger (1926) 80 Cal. App. 230, 238-239; see also Beckmann v. Beckmann (1959) 174 Cal. App. 2d 717, 721]. Thus, the notion that a finding of dementia or outright mental incapacity is required for a finding of Undue Influence, is incorrect as a matter of law. A Trust amendment, executed by a mentally weak elderly person under pressure from a relative who stands to gain by it is subject to nullification by a Probate Court. No finding of senility, dementia, or mental incapacity is required. What is required is that someone bring the matter before the Court.

2. When Does Undue Influence Occur? Undue Influence often occurs in the last few months of an elderly person’s life. Sometimes that person is suffering from outright illness, or perhaps he or she simply lacks the mental strength and vigor to resist demands from a younger person due to age and infirmity. Sometimes one relative has been helping to care for the elderly person, taking him or her to the doctor or hospital, making daily decisions, etc. Often what happens is that this “helpful” relative pressures the elderly person into signing an Amendment to his or her Trust or Will. There is an implied threat to the elder that if he or she does not agree to this demand that the relative will stop helping out. We have seen many examples of Undue Influence in which one relative pressures a very elderly person into changing an estate plan that has been in place for decades, and which benefited all of that person’s children equally, into an Amendment that benefits only the “helpful” relative while disinheriting the rest of the person’s children. Our Trust Dispute attorneys have seen, and defeated in court, examples of Undue Influence where the so-called Trust Amendment was supposedly approved by the elderly person only days before that person passed away.

Other times a relative will pressure an older parent or relative into signing a trust amendment that he or she neither understands nor wants long before that person passes away. Many times a relative will present an obtusely-written Trust amendment and explain that it is “routine” or “just a safeguard.” In reality the Trust amendment is designed to disinherit the person’s family in favor one person or other. The elderly person often forgets about the amendment, and the rest of the family only learns of it after the person passes.

3. What Can Be Done? When Undue Influence occurs there is usually much that can be done. As discussed above, in these situations there is a presumption that the trust amendment, will codicil, or conveyance of property in question constituted Undue Influence. In court the burden of proof must be met by the beneficiary of the transaction, i.e. the person who exercised the Undue Influence. But for the Undue Influence to be corrected at least one of the beneficiaries being victimized must bring an action in Probate Court. In litigation, delay is death. If you believe that your loved one’s estate plan was sabotaged by Undue Influence, you should seek legal advice immediately. At Buffington Law Firm, our experienced probate litigation attorneys have a track record of success in such matters. If you and your family have been victimized by Undue Influence in which your rightful inheritance has been hijacked, call us today for a no-obligation free legal consultation.