Undue Influence In Estate Planning is a fairly common occurrence. Estate planning means much more than mitigating the tax liability associated with transferring assets to others at your death. It also involves choosing one or more fiduciaries (e.g. family members) to manage your financial and healthcare matters at your incapacity and death; choosing who will be responsible for administering your estate; and determining who will be the beneficiaries of your assets whether by will, trust or other legal means. Estate planning covers nearly everything that you own including your home, car, financial portfolio, and business interests. No matter what your net worth is, you still have important decisions to make regarding the management and distribution of your assets, including who will look out for you and your money when you are no longer able. Estate planning attorneys help you create all of the legal documents that give your estate plan life and meaning.
Undue Influence is Common
Unfortunately, it is quite common for people to be taken advantage of, abused, defrauded, or manipulated when it comes to the estate planning process. Some people are emotionally and psychologically manipulated by those who develop a close, personal relationship with them and who exploit their inability to think and make decisions for themselves. This type of abuse is known as undue influence. And the person who commits the abuse (the wrongdoer) is often a relative, friend, caregiver or someone close to the victim and who is trusted by them.
Additionally, these actions tend to be kept secret from the victim. Once they pass away, it may be too late for others who are harmed by the undue influence to turn things around. Fortunately, regardless of whether the victim is still alive or has passed away, something can be done about the wrongdoer. So, if you believe that your financial interests have been interfered with by someone’s undue influence, and this relates to estate planning or administration, then you could file a lawsuit to contest the wrongdoer’s actions.
Undue Influence in Estate Planning Lawsuit
If you believe that you would have been a beneficiary of someone’s estate, but another person pressured them to take that benefit away from you – either directly or indirectly – then you could file a lawsuit to challenge this decision. One of the ways of challenging this decision is to show that the victim was exposed to undue influence. Suppose that the victim died – and just prior to their death – they removed you from their will because the wrongdoer manipulated them into believing that you are ungrateful and undeserving. In this case, you could bring a will contest to an Oklahoma probate court. In a will contest, you would argue that the will does not reflect the intent of the testator or testatrix (the will-maker).
No matter whether there is a regular probate court proceeding or not, you have a right to do this. It would be up to you to prove that the will does not really represent the true wishes of the victim and that it was written under the influence of someone else.
Red Flags of Undue Influence
The will distributes property in a way that is unexpected considering the circumstances. As an example: close relatives are left out; other unrelated and suspicious individuals receive a big portion of the victim’s estate; estranged family members receive a portion of the estate).
The person who makes the will becomes particularly dependent on the wrongdoer, and there is a close, confidential relationship between them. For example: the victim begins to trust their caregiver with all of their assets and names the caregiver as a beneficiary of their estate; an estranged family member comes into the picture at the last minute to brainwash the victim about other family members so that the estranged family member gets a portion of the estate.
Other Red Flags
The victim is old, ill or frail, making them susceptible to undue influence. As an example, the wrongdoer stands to benefit from a new will that a victim makes since this new will provides certain valuable things to the wrongdoer that were not provided to them in the victim’s prior will. Alternatively, the wrongdoer convinces the victim to sell certain assets that would have otherwise gone to a specific family member, and causes the victim to direct proceeds to the wrongdoer either when the victim is alive or at their death.
Winning An Undue Influence Lawsuit
If you feel that you have been disadvantaged by someone’s undue influence of the victim (e.g. you are cut out of the victim’s will), then to win an undue influence lawsuit, you’ll need to come up with evidence which shows that the victim was mistreated.
In your case, perhaps the abuser was present when the victim executed their will; recommended a particular lawyer to draft the will; recommended who would be a beneficiary; coached the victim or attorney in the execution of the estate planning documents; arranged to have those who don’t know the victim witness the will; or even stored the executed will in their possession until the victim died.
In some of the more egregious cases, undue influence could be demonstrated by the abuser defrauding the victim (e.g. inducing them into executing new estate planning documents by telling them that those documents contain different provisions than what they really contain).
Proving Undue Influence
Undue influence can be proven by your use of witnesses who know the victim. In a lawsuit, you could call them to testify as to their relationship with the victim and with whoever is accused of undue influence.
You also might be able to rely upon medical documentation which shows that the victim was incapable of making reasonable decisions with their assets. If the victim had diminished capacity, or was incapacitated in any way during the time that they made decisions which adversely affected you, then you could introduce that evidence in court to show that the victim lacked testamentary capacity. While not exactly the same argument as undue influence, it could be that the abuser took advantage of the victim’s frail mental state, or knew that they did not have the capability to make changes to their estate planning without being pressured or influenced by the abuser.
Influencing The Maker of a Will or Trust
Keep in mind that undue influence does not necessarily mean that someone is meddling or offering an opinion to the will-maker. Merely offering an opinion to the will-maker might not be construed as undue influence. Someone who speaks negatively towards a certain family member might be meddling, but they are not necessarily causing an undue influence on the victim. With undue influence, the victim isn’t able to make a reasonable decision – they are being manipulated by the wrongdoer. So, to prevail in an undue influence case, you’ll have to show that the person used over-persuasion, force, duress or other deceptive means to get the victim to enter into an estate plan that doesn’t reflect their own wishes but instead reflects the wishes of the abuser.
If you persuade the probate court that the victim’s estate planning documents (e.g. will, trust, power of attorney) have been procured through undue influence, then it will be the alleged abuser’s responsibility to prove that there was no undue influence.
Appointing A Guardian Or Conservator To Prevent Undue Influence
When a loved one can no longer manage their affairs, and they are determined to be incompetent by the court, then the court typically appoints a guardian or conservator for the benefit of that person (the protected person). Before the protected person is subject of a guardianship proceeding, if they still have control of their faculties, then they could sign powers of attorney giving one or more people (e.g. husband, wife, son, daughter, friend) legal responsibility to watch over their finances and health. The person who is granted this authority is called a fiduciary – they are required to act in the person’s best interests. That fiduciary could later be appointed as guardian in a guardianship proceeding. Notably, a guardian has a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the protected person. They can be held legally responsible for failing to do so.
Keep in mind that while the court strongly considers who the protected person has appointed in their powers of attorney, this does not mean that the court will declare them guardian. Also, the person seeking guardianship could be challenged by the protected person’s family members or other loved ones. So, there are ways in which the court could get involved to ensure that the right person is appointed guardian of the protected person, their property, or both.
Factors in Adult Guardianships
Also, remember that adult guardianships come into play when someone is incompetent – not merely incapacitated. Most cases that require a guardianship involve someone who has advance dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or is in a coma, or is suffering from another serious illness or condition that makes them unable to care for themself. Moreover, guardianships can be expensive and may require several court hearings, necessitating the support of a lawyer to get the job done. However, all of this may be necessary to ensure that the person is protected from things like undue influence — and that their true wishes for their assets are carried out.
Finally, there is no guarantee that the guardian will manage the individual’s assets or health in the best possible manner. In some cases, the incompetence or bad actions of the guardian may go unnoticed or unreported. So, if you suspect that your loved one’s guardian is not acting in a competent and professional way, seek legal representation as soon as possible.
Tulsa Oklahoma Undue Influence Lawyer
If someone who you care about has fallen victim to undue influence in estate planning and guardianship, then it is time to hold the wrongdoer accountable. But a lawsuit centered on undue influence is no walk in the park. You need a seasoned estate litigation law firm in Tulsa to ensure that your case goes right. Know that Kania Law Office is here for you. We are well equipped to both guide you through this process and ensure that your claim of undue influence is taken seriously by the court. For a free consultation regarding estate planning and probate, get in touch with Kania Law Office by calling (918) 743-2233 or by contacting us online.