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How do you prove a loved one was the victim of undue influence?

One of the most common reasons that family members contest a loved one's estate plan after they die is that they believe they were subject to undue influence by someone who convinced, cajoled or tricked them into changing the terms of their will or other documents. Often the alleged influencer is a boyfriend or girlfriend, a caretaker, a business manager or someone who only recently came into that person's life.

Proving to a court that there was an undue influence isn't a simple process. All states require different elements, so you need to know what the law says in the state where your loved one resided at the time of their death. However, typically the party contesting the estate plan has to show that the alleged influencer got the decedent to change their intended asset distributions by exerting undue influence.

Generally, you'll need to prove the following to successfully contest an estate plan for undue influence:

  • The deceased was susceptible to influence because of their age, health and/or state of mind.
  • The alleged influence had opportunity and access. For example, perhaps a caretaker gradually cut off the deceased from their family and increasingly isolated them.
  • The distribution of assets in the estate plan in unnatural, and all or a significant portion was left to the alleged influencer. For example, it would typically be considered unnatural if the deceased's children got nothing and a caretaker inherited the entire estate.
  • The estate plan at the time of the person's death was significantly different than an earlier version or than intentions the deceased had expressed during their life.
  • There are suspicious circumstances surrounding the estate plan, or the alleged influencer was instrumental in the drafting of the plan.
  • The alleged influencer had the deceased's trust or confidence or had control or power over them.

Some states have a presumption of undue influence written into the law if some of these conditions listed above exist.

If you believe that your loved one was the victim of undue influence and that you and perhaps others were denied the inheritance that they intended and wanted you to have, you should consult an estate planning attorney in the appropriate state. They can help you determine how best to proceed.

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