“Undue influence” is a term used repeatedly in California legal code, especially as it pertains to probate law and elder abuse. California law mentions undue influence to define a type of crime that often happens to vulnerable adults, yet can be difficult to prove without a formal description. 

In effect, laws sanctioning the use of undue influence aim to protect individuals from harm that isn’t caused by outright fraud or blatant criminal activity. Instead, the individual being harmed is the victim of manipulation.

What To Do If You Suspect Manipulation

Proving undue influence can help hold an individual accountable for abuses inflicted against a loved one. A beneficiary also might attempt to prove undue influence to contest a will, trust, or property transfer agreement.

If you think a loved one is or has been the victim of undue influence, you can report the suspected acts to San Luis Obispo Adult Protective Services (APS). You can also speak to a probate lawyer in San Luis Obispo if you feel like undue influence affected the outcome of a loved one’s will, a gift, or any other posthumous transfer of property. 

The Ernst Law Group is experienced with handling matters of property transfer, and we know the types of legal arguments probate courts look for when weighing the validity of a will or a contest. We also regularly handle cases involving trusts and other non-probate methods of property transfer. Don’t hesitate to speak to us if you feel a loved one was unduly influenced.

Schedule a free, no-obligation case review now when you call (805) 678-0272 or contact us online.

California Redefined Undue Influence in 2014

In the early 2000s, California prosecutors, judges, and attorneys ran into a major legal problem: “undue influence” was mentioned in Probate Code no less than 24 times, yet there was no formal legal definition under that code.

Most individuals involved in litigation or prosecution pertaining to undue influence had to rely upon case law, nuance, and context. This leads to inequitable outcomes and can give judges or juries little to go on when weighing whether or not someone was unduly influenced.

“The need for a clear definition of undue influence is also due to the ‘discovery’ and upsurge in the reporting of elder abuse and neglect,” write the authors of a 2010 paper published on behalf of the California Administrative Office of the Courts. “This phenomenon, first described in the 1980s in the United States, resulted in a number of publications and research projects, as well as changes in state laws across the country. Various community agencies and organizations, especially Adult Protective Services, began working with aspects of elder abuse and neglect including undue influence. The ‘discovery’ of elder abuse led to the ‘discovery’ of undue influence.”

In response to the 2010 paper, California legislators labored to come up with a more precise definition of undue influence – one that could be directly cited in the state’s Probate Code. 

In 2014, a new definition was signed into law and published within California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, § 15610.70:

(a) “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. In determining whether a result was produced by undue influence, all of the following shall be considered:

(1) The vulnerability of the victim. Evidence of vulnerability may include, but is not limited to, incapacity, illness, disability, injury, age, education, impaired cognitive function, emotional distress, isolation, or dependency, and whether the influencer knew or should have known of the alleged victim’s vulnerability.

(2) The influencer’s apparent authority. Evidence of apparent authority may include, but is not limited to, status as a fiduciary, family member, care provider, health care professional, legal professional, spiritual adviser, expert, or other qualification.

(3) The actions or tactics used by the influencer. Evidence of actions or tactics used may include, but is not limited to, all of the following:

(A) Controlling necessaries of life, medication, the victim’s interactions with others, access to information, or sleep.

(B) Use of affection, intimidation, or coercion.

(C) Initiation of changes in personal or property rights, use of haste or secrecy in effecting those changes, effecting changes at inappropriate times and places, and claims of expertise in effecting changes.

(4) The equity of the result. Evidence of the equity of the result may include, but is not limited to, the economic consequences to the victim, any divergence from the victim’s prior intent or course of conduct or dealing, the relationship of the value conveyed to the value of any services or consideration received, or the appropriateness of the change in light of the length and nature of the relationship.

(b) Evidence of an inequitable result, without more, is not sufficient to prove undue influence.

This definition is referred to directly in Probate Code § 86, effectively incorporating a definition of undue influence within the state’s probate law for the first time in its history.

How Is Undue Influence Relevant to a Will, Trust, or Inheritance?

In the realm of probate, “undue influence” is a term that primarily aims to protect asset holders and their beneficiaries from the effects of malicious manipulation. Individuals may want to defraud a relative through abuse, emotional manipulation, coercion, the withholding of essential care, or the exchange of favors in-kind. 

If the probate court agrees with a complaint filer that a portion or the entirety of a will was the product of undue influence, it gives the court grounds to declare the will invalid. 

In fact, there are several situations where the court automatically assumes that the beneficiary of a will only received a gift, transfer, or inheritance because they unduly influenced the decedent (See Probate Code § 21380). Examples of individuals who are automatically suspected of undue influence include:

  • Caregivers and care custodians
  • Caregivers who married, moved in with, or began a domestic partnership with the “transferor”
  • A lawyer, notary, or any individual otherwise who helped draft or transcribe the will/trust/gift/property transfer

Contact a Probate Attorney If You Suspect Undue Influence 

Undue influence is pernicious because it preys upon vulnerable individuals. It can also disproportionately affect those who worked hard their entire life to build an estate.

You should report undue influence to the county APS where your loved one resides. You can also work with an attorney to examine how undue influence led to an inequitable property transfer agreement once your loved one passed on.

Call the Ernst Law Group today to discuss your case and how California law might affect the scenario at hand. Schedule a free, no-obligation appointment now by calling (805) 678-0272 or by using our convenient form to contact us online.