You may have heard of cases where someone’s will faced a challenged based on undue influence. Understanding what this term means from a legal standpoint could help you gain clarity and make strategic decisions to help lessen the chances of your will facing this and other challenges. It can also be helpful if you are going through the probate process in connection to a loved one.
Enlisting the help of an experienced lawyer to draft your will and plan your estate can go a long way toward ensuring your wishes are carried out. Legal guidance can also be a helpful thing to have when navigating issues related to the probate process.
Many people harbor the misconception that if a disposition is unfair or makes no sense, it must be the product of undue influence. However, a person absolutely has the right to leave his or her property as he or she sees fit. Family members may feel certain dispositions are highly unfair; however, even if that is the case, an “unfair” disposition remains valid as long as nothing else was at play. The law generally does not require people to be sensible, fair, grateful or any other particular way when they decide how to leave their property.
When do a will’s proponents need to rebut a presumption of undue influence?
Established Florida case law states that a presumption of undue influence arises when someone who has a confidential or fiduciary relationship with the testator substantially benefits from the will and was active in bringing the will into existence.
Proving undue influence
Essentially, undue influence is a type of fraud. The person who exercises the influence does so to the extent of taking over the testator’s will so that the resulting dispositions reflect the influencer’s wishes rather than those of the testator. As you can imagine, proving this happened can present difficulties.
Courts usually consider some combination of several factors that indicate the beneficiary’s involvement in producing the will, including whether he or she obtained witnesses, recommended the attorney, was present at the signing, knew of the contents, instructed the attorney and kept the signed will. Courts also look at the reasonableness of the provision in question and whether the beneficiary took steps to isolate or alienate the testator from family members. While impaired mental capacity does not equal undue influence, it can serve as a factor in determining whether the beneficiary took advantage of any incapacity.