Contesting a will in California is challenging, but several conditions allow you to do so. One of those conditions is where the will was the product of “undue influence.” This means that the deceased person (decedent) was manipulated by someone into giving them an unfair share of property.
Most often, undue influence is suspected when someone was providing care for the decedent prior to their death or when someone helped draft or transcribe the will. However, anyone can be accused of leveraging undue influence on someone.
Who Proves Undue Influence?
The burden of proof is on the person who is contesting the will. They must use clear and convincing evidence to prove undue influence based on the language of the law, past case rulings, and the specific facts of their case.
Proving undue influence can be difficult, but you can rely on the criteria described in relevant state statutes to guide your case strategy. A San Luis Obispo probate attorney can help you interpret the law, review your case, and assemble the evidence needed to help you prove undue influence.
Schedule a free, no-obligation case review now when you call the Ernst Law Group at (805) 678-0272 or contact us online.
Why Does Proving Undue Influence Matter?
There are very few circumstances under which someone can contest a will, and undue influence is one of them.
California Probate Code § 8252 lists possible valid reasons for contesting a will, including, “lack of testamentary intent or capacity, undue influence, fraud, duress, mistake, or revocation.”
In some cases, certain parties will be assumed to have exerted undue influence on a decedent, placing the burden of proof on them to show they didn’t coerce or manipulate the decedent. Such is the case when a caretaker or someone who helped draft the will is a named beneficiary.
Therefore, proving undue influence can allow someone to invalidate the terms of a will or trust in part or in full. The probate court can then allocate property according to an alternative arrangement, usually one made by way of a settlement agreement between all interested parties.
What Components of Undue Influence Need to Be Proven?
In 2014, California wrote a specific, modern definition of undue influence that’s included in the Probate Code statutory language.
The definition encompasses a few different criteria, many of which are situation-specific. In other words, many factors could indicate someone was unduly influenced. Not all of them need to be proven individually, but the more proof of each factor someone can present, the more “clear and convincing” their argument will be.
First, the definition of undue influence is as follows (from California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, § 15610.70):
“Undue influence” means excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.
Next, the statute lists a few elements that the court will look for to determine if undue influence was exercised. These include:
The vulnerability of the victim.
Individuals who are more vulnerable are more likely to be seen as having their free will overcome. This includes individuals who are ill, elderly, lack formal education, had impaired cognitive functioning, were under considerable emotional distress, were isolated, or who were otherwise dependent upon others.
The influencer’s apparent authority.
Someone who professionally handles the finances or legal matters of the victim would be considered to have authoritative power. So would caregivers, health care professionals, spiritual advisors, alleged “experts”, or even family members.
The actions or tactics used by the influencer.
Examples of actions taken that could indicate a pattern of undue influence include controlling aspects of the victim’s life, such as their food, medication, material comforts, sleep, access to information, and their ability to interact with others.
The equity of the result.
Inequitable results are more likely to be seen as the product of undue influence. A “result” can refer to more than just a large inheritance, too. It can also include major changes to the victim’s normal “course of conduct or dealing,” whether the value of the services rendered by the alleged influencer was considerably less than the value of services/property they received, and whether changes in the victim’s habits, financial dealings, or lifestyle could be seen as inappropriate given the length and nature of their relationship with the influencer.
Proving Undue Influence with a San Luis Obispo Probate Attorney
Convincing a court, arbitration judge, or other party that undue influence was exerted is no simple task. But the more evidence you can provide, and the more clearly that evidence links to the specific statutory language, the better your chances.
Discuss your case and what legal strategies you may have available with an experienced probate attorney in San Luis Obispo. Call (805) 678-0272 or contact us online to schedule a free, no-obligation case review with the Ernst Law Group now.