Undue influence is a common problem in estate planning but one that many families never expect to face. When a beneficiary, caregiver or other party has undue influence over a testator or grantor, a will or trust may be declared invalid. This is why it is critically important for family members to be aware of the warning signs of undue influence.
E.A. Goodman Law, LLC is committed to protecting estate planners, fiduciaries and beneficiaries throughout New Jersey from the consequences of undue influence. If you need assistance protecting a vulnerable loved one from undue influence, we will provide you with informed representation and dependable service. Please contact our office today for a free evaluation of your case.
What Is Undue Influence?
Undue influence occurs when an individual in a position of trust or authority takes unfair advantage of or exerts pressure on the victim, causing the individual to (1) lose his or her free will to make decisions and (2) act to the benefit of the “influencer.”
Elders, especially those who are recently widowed, isolated or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia are particularly vulnerable to undue influence. Influencers are typically those in the best position to exert undue influence: caregivers, beneficiaries, friends, or other persons who are in close contact with the victim.
In the context of estate planning, undue influence happens when a vulnerable elderly individual is convinced to change provisions in a will, such as naming a caretaker as a beneficiary. Because the methods used to influence victims are usually not apparent to others, undue influence often goes undetected until a will is probated or a trust is administered, which can result in time- consuming and costly estate litigation.
What are the Warning Signs of Undue Influence?
Distinguishing between influence and undue influence can be complicated. People influence one other all the time and a certain level of influence is permissible. Undue influence is far more sinister because it involves the complete replacement of the victim’s intent with the intent of the perpetrator.
In short, someone your loved one trusts, such as a caregiver, may use that position of trust to unduly influence his or her estate plan. Warning signs of undue influence may include:
- The influencer (e.g. a new caregiver) isolates the victim by preventing visits and calls
- The victim complains about being pressured or harassed
- Unusual activity in the victim’s bank accounts
- A change in the victim’s regular pattern of giving
- Giving the influencer power of attorney
- The victim favoring certain beneficiaries, particularly a caregiver
- Sudden changes to the victim’s estate plan (e.g. creating a new will, naming a new executor)
In sum, undue influence is a matter of control. If a will or trust is made through undue influence, it may be declared invalid by a court or jury.
How to Prove Undue Influence
At E.A. Goodman Law, we are highly experienced in handling claims of undue influence and are well-versed in the applicable statutes and case law. New Jersey courts have defined undue influence as mental, moral, or physical exertion which destroys the free agency of the testator.
Generally, the person contesting a will has the burden of proving undue influence; however the burden shifts to the defendant if the challenger can provide evidence that (1) a confidential relationship between the testator and the person accused of undue influence and (2) suspicious circumstances exist.
A confidential relationship is one in which the victim relies heavily on the party accused of undue influence (e.g. a guardian, person with power of attorney, caregiver) or in a family relationship where trust and confidence exist (e.g. parent-child). While “suspicious circumstances” depend on the facts of the case, an example may be a sudden change in beneficiary designations in a will.
Ultimately, to have a successful claim, it is necessary to demonstrate the elements of undue influence:
- The will or trust distributes assets in a manner that could not be reasonably anticipated
- The victim’s physical or mental condition made him or her susceptible to undue influence
- The victim relied on the party accused of undue influence for assistance
- The accused party benefited from changes in a will, trust, or a suspicious financial transaction
Given the challenges in proving undue influence, the best way to protect your rights is to work with an experienced trust and estates attorney.
Contact Our Experienced New Jersey Estate Litigation Attorneys
At E.A. Goodman Law, LLC, we often recommend seeking negotiated solutions to claims of undue influence and other will contests, however, we are also comfortable in the courtroom.
If you believe undue influence has impacted your loved one’s estate plan, our trust and estate attorneys will provide you with informed representation and work to protect your beneficiary rights. We also work with clients proactively during the estate planning process to protect their estates from claims of undue influence. Please contact our office today to learn how we can help.