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The 3 elements of undue influence in trust litigation cases

On Behalf of | Oct 4, 2023 | Firm News

Concerned family members or beneficiaries can potentially initiate trust litigation for a variety of different reasons. One of the more common concerns that lead people to initiate litigation in the California probate courts is a belief that an outside party has exerted undue influence on a testator.

The term undue influence refers to one party (unethically, in most cases) using their relationship with another person to effectively alter the terms of their estate plan. The terms of a trust or even the decision of who to name as trustee or the beneficiaries of the trust could be the outcome of someone inappropriately pressuring the trust’s creator. To establish undue influence in probate court, plaintiffs need to prove that the situation involves the three main elements of undue influence.

The vulnerability of the trust creator

The average adult has the ability to withstand intense pressure from others, including attempts to coerce them into adding specific terms to an estate plan. However, some adults are more at risk than others. They may have physical impairments that leave them reliant on a spouse or caregiver or be in an isolated location that makes them easier to manipulate. Those claiming undue influence need to establish what made the testator vulnerable.

The authority of the party exerting influence

Plaintiffs in probate litigation centered on claims of undue influence also need to establish that the person who exerted undue influence was in a position of authority. Perhaps they had control over or access to someone’s financial resources. Maybe they provided medical support for someone in their golden years. Someone needs to be in a position to abuse their authority to exert undue influence on a person creating a trust.

Evidence of questionable behaviors

Finally, those raising a claim of undue influence will need to establish how the individual in a position of authority used their relationship to affect the testator’s trust. Evidence might include records of their interference in someone’s communications or visits with other people. Their insistence on choosing the lawyer who put together the trust or attending all estate planning meetings could also serve as evidence of concern.

Provided that plaintiffs can establish that the testator was vulnerable, that someone who benefits from the trust was in a position of authority and that they used that authority to influence the trust’s creator, they may have a compelling case to present in probate court.