What Is Undue Influence in Probate Law?
One of the basic arguments for invalidating a will is what a probate lawyer would call undue influence. This occurs when a third party in a position of trust relative to the granter of the estate unduly imposes their judgment on the terms of the will. Let's take a look at what undue influence is and how a probate attorney might raise questions about it.
Lawyers, Fiduciaries, and Confidential Relationships
Three groups of people are typically capable of exerting undue influence. One of the least common but most egregious examples is when an estate planning attorney exerts an influence for their benefit. If an estate planning lawyer designed a client's will in a way that directed assets or money from the estate to the lawyer or someone close to them, that would be an exertion of undue influence. An estate planning attorney must represent their client's best interests, not their own.
Fiduciaries are another class that can unduly influence a will or an estate. The typical fiduciary is the executor named in the will, but a court-appointed administrator is also a fiduciary. Someone who is a fiduciary must ensure the estate's finances are managed competently and without corruption. If they fail to do so, a court may require them to compensate the beneficiaries of the estate. Usually, executors and administrators who exert undue influence do so when interpreting the will after the grantor has died.
Confidential relationships represent some of the trickier arguments. Generally, this refers to a spouse or an unmarried romantic partner of the deceased. Sometimes relatives can exert undue influence, too. If the deceased married shortly before passing and their new spouse dictated massive changes in the will to cut out the decedent's biological children, for example, a court might invalidate the will.
The Deceased's Will
Interpreting what the deceased wanted is a fundamental component of probate law. Suppose someone had maintained a will for 40 years granting most of their estate to their kids. Those descendants would have grounds to question a sudden change that cut them out of the will, especially if it appeared another party drove the changes.
Limited Legal Definitions
Not all states have passed definitions of undue influence into law, choosing instead to leave the issue up to a court's interpretation. It's best to contact a probate lawyer to learn what the rules are in the state where your loved one passed and whether you should sue.
For more information about how a probate lawyer can help you, contact a local practice.