Undue influence in estate planning

If a person is elderly, ill, or otherwise vulnerable, they may fall victim to individuals who attempt to take advantage of them in different ways. One method of manipulation against older adults in referred to as “undue influence” in the estate planning process.

If you believe that you or a loved one has been the unduly influenced in creating or altering terms of a will or other estate planning documents, you should contact an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance as soon as possible.

DO NOT HESITATE TO CALL THE DICKSON FROHLICH AT (206) 621-1110 OR (253) 572-1000 TO DISCUSS A POSSIBLE LEGAL CLAIM.

What is undue influence?

Undue influence in estate planning involves manipulating an individual to leave assets or property to the manipulator instead of to family or other expected beneficiaries. While repeated negative comments or griping about other family members may influence someone to rethink their will, such meddling does not constitute undue influence. Instead, undue influence generally must be proved by showing the following elements:

  • Illness, confusion or other weakness caused the will-maker to be vulnerable to undue influence.
  • The will-maker had a trusted or confidential relationship with the suspected manipulator.
  • The will leaves out close family members and instead leaves property or assets to the influencer.
  • The suspected manipulator influenced the will-maker to replace will provisions with other provisions that benefitted the manipulator.

This may occur by a person getting especially close to a vulnerable person and convincing them to visit a lawyer to substantially alter their will in an otherwise unexpected manner.

Understanding Washington’s approach to undue influence

Provided a will contains the required statutory components (i.e. it is executed in writing, signed by the testator, and properly witnessed), it is presumed valid regardless of its contents. Washington State courts recognize a strong individual right to direct what transpires with one’s assets after death. Because of the degree of deference afforded wills, some individuals seek to influence a testator to their advantage. While “mere persuasion” is not prohibited in law, when it rises to an extreme level, it may be deemed undue influence.

Undue influence transpires when a person (or persons) exert power or influence over a testator (the person making the will) in such a way as to essentially usurp or take away an individual’s free will. Given that wills are commonly formed towards the end of a person’s life, when the testator may be dealing with the natural difficulties of old age, undue influence is a common approach to invalidating a will. Due to this diminished capacity, it is not surprising that unscrupulous individuals may seek to take advantage, and thus judicial protections against such influence are also necessary.

Proving that undue influence occurred in the creation of a will requires certain specific factors to be met. First, the level of undue influence must be significant, to the extent that the free will of the testator is destroyed. Second, the party challenging the will must show that the undue influence caused the testator to create a will that differs materially from what otherwise would have been made. In other words, if the undue influencer would have gotten no more from the estate than what he would have without the undue influence, then it is of no effect. Last, the alleged undue influence must be more than “mere persuasion.” It is not unlawful to use common persuasion to impact a person’s testamentary wishes.

To prove an undue influence claim, the challenging party bears the initial burden of showing that such influence is more likely than not (a preponderance of the evidence). However, if undue influence is proven, even for only a part of the will, the ENTIRE will is deemed invalid. An invalid will requires that the court look to earlier wills, or proceed through probate with no will.

Obtaining justice for undue influence

Often, family members do not even realize that undue influence may have occurred until after the victim dies and they review the will. However, it is not too late to seek justice against the undue influencer as you may bring your concerns and objections up to the probate court via a will contest1. Undue influence claims may be challenging to prove as the accused manipulator can testify to their intentions and the case may be one person’s word against another’s.

However, an experienced attorney will know how to present evidence of your claims to obtain the justice you deserve.

Contact a Seattle and Tacoma estate planning attorney for help today

If you have concerns over the provisions in a will and suspect undue influence may have occurred, the lawyers at the Dickson Frohlich can help you with a potential case.

WE OFFER FREE CONSULTATIONS, SO PLEASE CALL ONE OF OUR OFFICES NOW AT (206) 621-1110 OR (253) 572-1000 FOR ASSISTANCE.

1http://app.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=11.24