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What is undue influence, and how can it be avoided?

Saying that there has been “undue influence” is often used as a reason to contest a will or estate plan, but what does the term mean?

Undue influence occurs when someone exerts pressure on an individual, causing that individual to act contrary to his or her wishes to the benefit of the influencer or the influencer’s friends. The pressure can take the form of deception, harassment, threats or isolation. Often the influencer separates the individual from loved ones in order to coerce him or her. The elderly and infirm are usually more susceptible to undue influence.

To prove a loved one was subject to undue influence in drafting an estate plan, you have to show that the loved one disposed of his or her property in a way that was unexpected under the circumstances, that he or she is susceptible to undue influence (because of illness, age, frailty or a special relationship with the influencer), and that the person who exerted the influence had the opportunity to do so. Generally, the burden of proving undue influence is on the person asserting that it took place. However, if the alleged influencer had a “fiduciary relationship” with the loved one (meaning that the loved one placed a high degree of trust in the influencer to handle his or her affairs), the burden may be on the influencer to prove that there was no undue influence. People who have a fiduciary relationship can include a child, a spouse or an agent under a power of attorney.

When drawing up a will or estate plan, it is important to avoid even the appearance of undue influence. For example, if you are planning on leaving everything to your daughter who is also your primary caregiver, your other children may argue that your daughter took advantage of her position to influence you. To avoid the appearance of undue influence, do not involve any family members who are inheriting under your will in drafting the will. Family members should not be present when you discuss the will with your attorney or when you sign it. To be totally safe, family members shouldn’t even drive or accompany you to the attorney’s office. You can also get a formal assessment of your mental capabilities done by a medical professional before you draft estate planning documents.

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