undue influence

What Does “Undue Influence” Mean in the Context of Estate Planning?

While TV shows often play up the drama of the reading of a will, it’s rarely that exciting. Usually, everyone knows or has a pretty good idea what the decedent wanted to be done with their assets—you’re unlikely to find out huge family secrets when the will is read. However, surprises do occur.

A devoted mom of two leaves them out of the will, only to leave everything to her nurse of two years. A bachelor known for his close relationships with his nieces and nephews chooses to give everything to just one of them. When the estate is distributed in a way completely contrary to what was expected, you may have suspicions of undue influence.

If you suspect that a loved one was subject to undue influence before their passing or you want to find out how to protect your estate from false claims, let’s talk about your options. Call Haygood, Cleveland, Pierce, Thompson & Short at 334-560-1936.

What is Undue Influence?

Undue influence occurs when someone manipulates a vulnerable individual into making decisions that benefit the manipulator. It’s a term that can be used in several areas of law, but it is particularly rampant in estate planning.

People can change their minds, of course—an edited estate plan doesn’t mean that the person was unduly influenced to do so. However, if the changes are not aligned with what would be expected of the individual, there may be a reason to dig a little deeper.

If someone is unduly influenced to change their estate plan, it may occur in several different ways. An individual already named in the will may find a way to secure a larger portion of the estate or make themselves the sole heir. Someone who is not in the will may find a way to convince the writer to include them, even at the exclusion of others.

Signs of Undue Influence

If undue influence is suspected, there are some red flags to watch out for:

  • A weakened physical or mental state. An individual who is physically or mentally weak may be at risk of being unduly influenced. For example, someone who is reliant on someone else meeting their physical needs and keeping them alive may be forced to do what that person says in order to keep getting the care they need. People with weakened mental states, such as those suffering from dementia, are at particularly high risk of undue influence.
  • Enforced isolation. It’s hard to encourage someone to change their estate plan in your favor if they continue to have healthy relationships and frequent contact with loved ones. If they spend time with loved ones, it’s easy for friends and family to see the signs of manipulation. If you see an individual who is being unexpectedly isolated from family members and friends may be at risk.
  • Damaged relationships with loved ones. Consider an individual who has always had strong relationships with family members, only to have them crumble in the last few years of their life. While this may be a genuine falling out, it could also be the influence of someone who stands to benefit from isolating the individual.
  • Unusually close relationship with another person. A sudden close relationship with a nurse, caretaker, friend, or distant family member isn’t always undue influence. It does, however, warrant further investigation. A close relationship isn’t always a red flag, especially if it’s someone who has always had a close relationship with the individual. But if the new friends come out of the woodwork just in time to inherit, that’s concerning.
  • An unexpected distribution of assets. Small surprises may occur, but in general, everyone should have a broad idea of what the decedent wanted. Huge discrepancies may be a sign of undue influence.

What Family Members Should Do If They Suspect Undue Influence

Talk to a lawyer immediately. The longer the assets are in the hands of the other person, the less likely you’ll be able to recover from them if they did manipulate your loved one. You’ll want to talk to an attorney and get an investigation started before the estate finishes going through probate.

Protecting Your Estate from Accusations

If you’re worried about your estate being overhauled by claims of undue influence, talk to an estate planning attorney. They can ensure you use the proper language in your documents to prove that your choices are your own. Additionally, talk to your loved ones as you plan your estate. If they know what to expect, they’re far less likely to contest your will after you pass.

Explore Your Estate Planning Options with Haygood, Cleveland, Pierce, Thompson & Short

It’s never too early to begin planning your estate. Wherever you are in the process, we’re here to help. Call us at 334-560-1936 or contact us online to set up a time to talk.

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