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Proving Undue Influence in a Will Contestation

Some people may not be able to explain what undue influence is in a court of law, but everyone has seen examples of it. You may have an elderly relative who was recently married to a new spouse, who is suddenly “convincing” the elderly relative to make a change to their will. You may have another relative who was also remarried, and the stepchildren are trying to “convince” the relative to include them into their will.

This “convincing” is also known as undue influence, and when undue influence is used to make legal changes in wills, it is illegal. Undue influence occurs, per Cornell Law School, when “the use of undue influence by one party over another puts the free will of one of the parties entering the contract into question, and therefore leads to the contract being unenforceable and voidable by the victim party.”

This can happen in the form of a threat, emotional manipulation, withholding affection, or physical abuse. Undue influence does not just happen with spouses or long-term couples; an elder person’s children can also commit undue influence by, for example, threatening to keep their grandchildren away from them if they do not increase their inheritance.

Some examples of undue influence that can happen in families include:

  • A stepmother attempting to coerce her husband into increasing her inheritance for her children
  • A middle-aged child threatening to send an elder parent to the nursing home if they do not increase their inheritance
  • A long-term caregiver who coerces an elder to add them to their will
  • Family friends who coerce elders to include them into their wills

What are some signs of undue influence?

As you can see, anyone can use undue influence to coerce a vulnerable party to make decisions in their favor. Some of the signs that undue influence is occurring with a family member include:

  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Bruises, cuts, or other signs of physical violence
  • Dependency on the manipulative person
  • Threats
  • Acts of intimidation

How to show you have standing in the will

In order to argue undue influence, you must first prove that you have standing to contest the will. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that “in order to have standing to contest a will, the contestant must show that he would take a share of the decedent’s estate if the probated will were set aside” in Keasler v. Estate of Keasler, 973 S.W.2d 213 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997).

In simpler terms, if a previous will exists that was not probated and it is being presented as the real will, you must prove that you stand to inherit property from the will. If you are not named in the will, or do not stand to inherit anything, you will not be able to contest the will even for undue influence.

How to prove undue influence when contesting a will

To prove undue influence, it is up to the person contesting the will (and his or her attorney) to provide proof of that influence. This can be difficult to prove. A person cannot use what a vulnerable person “may have been thinking” at the time of creating their will as definitive proof of undue influence.

Some factors you can use to prove that your loved one may have acted under duress or by coercion include:

  • The vulnerability of the decedent. To prove the vulnerability of the decedent, the plaintiff can use the decedent’s age, disability, illness, or impaired cognitive condition. The plaintiff can also show that the manipulative person knew of the decedent’s alleged vulnerability.
  • The manipulative person’s authority. To prove how the manipulative person has authority over the decedent, the plaintiff can show examples of the person’s status, like a caregiver, financial adviser, or family member.
  • The actions and tactics of the manipulative person. The plaintiff can use the manipulative person’s actions to prove this element. Some of the examples include manipulating the decedent’s medication, withholding affection from the decedent, suggesting changes to legal documents through the use of secrecy, and offering changes to legal documents at inappropriate times.
  • The equity of the result. Some of the types of evidence that the plaintiff can use for this element include any economic damage to the decedent, any divergence from the decedent’s prior actions or conduct, and the appropriateness of the change compared to the length and nature of the relationship.

What factors can help with proving undue influence?

One of the factors that can help with proving undue influence is the decedent’s mental state. In a majority of probate cases, a decedent’s weakened mental state can help prove their vulnerability in a court of law. Another factor that can help is the manipulative person’s access to the decedent. When the manipulative person in question has frequent private access to the decedent, it makes it easier for the courts to consider how easily the defendant can isolate the decedent. For example, a caregiver who spends a long amount of private time with an elderly resident has enough time to coerce them into making inconsistent changes to their will.

How a Chattanooga probate litigation attorney can help

Unfortunately, the issue of undue influence usually is of concern after the relative has passed and can no longer speak for themselves. The primary objective of probate law is to ensure that the relative’s wishes are fulfilled after their passing. An experienced probate litigation attorney can help you exercise your legal rights after your loved one has passed. Probation litigation attorneys can help validate the authenticity of a will and hold the right parties accountable for failing to properly maintain the estate.

At Wagner & Wagner Attorneys at Law, we use our years of experience to handle complex probate litigation issues. We strive to earn the faith and loyalty of our clients through professionalism and honesty. Call our firm at 423-756-7923, or complete our contact form to schedule a free consultation. We offer legal services in Chattanooga and Cleveland.