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Proving undue influence to challenge an estate plan

The family members of someone who has recently died sometimes feel compelled to take legal action against their estate. In some cases, there is clear evidence that an older adult had already experienced significant cognitive decline when they drafted or updated their documents.

Families sometimes file probate lawsuits because they assert that someone lacked testamentary capacity. They need to convince the courts that the decedent didn’t understand the impact of the documents, their assets or their relationships at the time they drafted documents. Other times, the primary concern is not that someone didn’t understand the terms of their estate plan but rather that they didn’t have sole control over those terms.

Litigation based on allegations of undue influence can help families prevent an outside party from unfairly influencing the terms of an estate plan. Undue influence entails using a personal relationship to affect the terms of someone’s will or other estate planning documents.

What do families need to establish to pursue claims of undue influence in probate court?

Undue influence usually involves vulnerable adults

The average person typically does not allow outside parties to make their major decisions for them. However, as people become vulnerable due to advanced age or medical challenges, they may be less assertive when dealing with manipulative or abusive individuals.

One of the most important elements of a successful undue influence case in probate court is proof that the older adult was vulnerable at the time they drafted their documents. Plaintiffs pursuing undue influence litigation typically also need evidence that someone was in a position to abuse their authority, possibly because they were a caregiver for the older adult or lived with them.

Finally, there must be an indication that the person exerting that influence derived benefits that they may not have otherwise received. Earlier versions of the estate plan or written communications with the testator affirming intentions that are vastly different than those included in the estate plan could help raise questions about the final terms included in their documents.

Initiating probate litigation based on claims of undue influence could prevent someone from unfairly inheriting due to their unethical behavior. Families who recognize when legal action may be necessary can more effectively protect their interest in an estate and stand up for the true intentions of their deceased loved ones.

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