Undue influence is one method of challenging the validity of a will. Other methods include contesting whether the decedent had the testamentary capacity to make a will and whether the will was properly executed.
Normally, an undue influence claim is asserted when the heirs who normally would have received part or all of an inheritance are deleted from a will or receive less than expected, in return for another person receiving more than expected. The key elements of an undue influence claim are:
- The person who received the benefits was in a confidential relationship with the testator (the person who made a will).
- The testator’s mental or physical health was deteriorating.
- The person who received the benefits did so under suspicious circumstances or through the use of force, coercion, or fraud against the testator.
- The natural heirs of the estate were excluded from having contact with the testator prior to the testator’s death.
The person who is accused of undue influence can be another relative of the testator, a friend of the testator, someone who is a caretaker of the testator, or even a lawyer.
For example, if a grandfather is ill, a caretaker may coerce the grandfather to prepare a will or change an existing will that leaves all the assets of the testator’s estate to the caretaker and not any of the grandfather’s children or grandchildren.
This scenario may justify the filing by the children and grandchildren that the will presented by the caretaker for probate is not valid. If the court finds that the will is not valid due to undue influence, then the court can admit a prior will that leaves everything to the children and grandchildren for probate. If there is no other will, the court will distribute the estate to the children and grandchildren according to Tennessee intestate laws.
What factors indicate undue influence may have occurred?
Some of the signs that undue influence may have occurred include:
- Unexpected changes to a will, trust, or power of attorney
- An unexpected change in the wishes of the testator that were previously expressed
- Not being able to contact the testator in person, by phone, or by email
- Any threats or acts of intimidation against the testator
- Unusual financial transactions while the testator is still living
- Isolation of the testator by others
- The testator has dementia or Alzheimer’s
- Secrecy regarding the existence of the will
- The advanced age of the testator
- The testator was blind or couldn’t read
- The testator was emotionally upset
- A testator is unaware that what he/she is signing is actually a will
What is the “confidential relationship” requirement in undue influence disputes?
In order to overturn or deny the validity of a will based on undue influence, you will need to show that the relationship between the person who benefits from the latest will and the testator was confidential. The relationship doesn’t have to be a blood relationship. Confidential means that the person accused of creating a will by undue influence had a controlling relationship over the testator. The courts use the term “dominion and control.” Dominion and control over the testator means that the person who benefited had constant access to the testator to the exclusion of others.
For example, if a caretaker moves in with a testator and refuses to let anyone else see the testator, that caretaker is exercising dominion and control over the testator.
The burden of proof is on the people who are contesting the will.
Wagner & Wagner Attorneys at Law has been a strong advocate when wrongs occur since 1945. We’re skilled at probating wills and contesting wills that should be invalid due to undue influence or other reasons. We’ll review the evidence necessary to overturn a will and explain how strong a case you have. To speak with an experienced probate lawyer, call us or use our contact form to schedule a free consultation. We proudly serve Chattanooga and Cleveland, TN, and the surrounding locations.
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