Usually, families feel grateful when they discover that someone who died has left a will behind. A will or other estate planning documents provide clear instructions about who should inherit resources from an estate and other important details about someone’s legacy.
Unfortunately, not all families feel confident that a will or estate plan actually includes terms that the testator desired. Sometimes, there are concerns that an outside party, likely someone who is a beneficiary of the estate, may have inappropriately influenced the terms included in the document. Undue influence is the legal term for when someone other than the testator creating a will or trust sets the terms for their estate.
What can families do if they suspect that an outside party inappropriately influenced an estate plan?
They can contest the will
Undue influence occurs when someone other than the testator uses their relationship with the testator to obtain a larger inheritance. Other times, they might seek out other better official estate planning terms for personal gain.
For a situation to constitute actionable undue influence, there needs to be reason to believe that the testator was vulnerable to some degree and that someone, such as a spouse, child or caregiver, tried to manipulate or coerce them into changing their paperwork. Finally, that person needs to directly benefit by receiving property from the estate. If the situation meets all of those standards, then the other surviving family members or presumptive beneficiaries of the estate could take legal action. They can contest or challenge the will in probate court.
A judge can review their evidence along with the testamentary documents to determine if there are any concerning signs of misconduct. If the judge agrees that an outside party likely influenced the testator’s choices, they might choose to uphold an older version of someone’s estate plan. They could also set aside a will if it is the only document on record and distribute assets from the estate as though someone died without an estate plan.
Estate litigation related to challenging someone’s testamentary documents can take months to resolve. However, especially when the terms set in the documents are not what someone told their family they wanted, it may be proper to push to uphold their actual last wishes instead of terms influenced by someone else. Connecting someone’s position of authority with changes to an estate plan might help families realize that they need to take action in probate court.