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What is undue influence in California Estate Planning?

By June 3, 2017 No Comments

Wills and other estate planning tools in California may be nullified if it can be proven that there was undue influence.

Under California law, any will or even part of a will is deemed unenforceable when undue influence has taken place. The same is true if a will or part of a will has been revoked: The revocation is ineffective if the person was under undue influence.

But what does undue influence mean? And how is it proven? Here, we will take a look at how to spot the signs of this illegal behavior and what can be done about it.

Defining undue influence

There is no clear definition of undue influence in the state’s probate code, though the civil code states that it manifests through the following ways:

  • When someone takes advantage of someone else’s distress or necessities
  • When someone takes advantage of someone else’s weakness of mind
  • When someone has authority over someone else and uses it to take advantage of the situation

Based on these guidelines, even someone who is of sound mind could be subject to undue influence.

The warning signs

The chief warning sign that undue influence has played a role in the creation of a will or other document is that there seems to be an inconsistency. For example, the creator of the will suddenly changes plans to benefit one person, or his or her actions appear inconsistent with his or her longstanding values.

The person may be isolated from family and friends, and the manipulative person has moved in or otherwise taken control of the person’s actions and day-to-day activities. Loved ones also should be cautious of a caretaker or person who will not allow the person in question to speak for himself or herself.

What to do about it

Part of the problem with undue influence is that people are unaware of it until after their loved one has passed away. However, proving the problem is still possible. A court will base its decision in part on witnesses, such as people who knew the person who created the will well. This could include family members but also doctors and attorneys. The people alleging that undue influence has taken place will have to prove that the defendant had a confidential relationship with the decedent, that the person played a role in building the will or trust, and that the item in question directly benefitted that person.

From there, the burden of proof may shift onto the person to demonstrate that he or she did not exert undue influence, which may be difficult if the family has already demonstrated the above points. Bringing all the facts to the table and a complete picture of the situation strongly helps an undue influence case.

Anyone who has concerns about this topic should speak with an estate planning attorney in California.

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