What someone includes in their estate plan is often deeply personal. They may leave resources for someone to whom they always wanted to apologize to but couldn’t. They may also choose to reduce or eliminate someone’s inheritance because of how that person treats them.
Unfortunately, while one would expect an estate plan to accurately reflect an adult’s wishes and personal relationships – even those that aren’t always clear to others, as explored above – other parties sometimes do anything they can think of to influence the structure of someone else’s estate plan. In cases where family members or beneficiaries suspect undue influence by a family member or caregiver, it may be necessary to challenge the estate plan in probate court.
Why do people make undue influence claims?
One of the most common reasons that an undue influence-related will contest is filed involves the sudden and dramatic revision of a testator’s estate plan. Maybe the deceased had documents on record for decades that evenly distributed their assets among their children and grandchildren. However, in the last months of their life, they changed their documents to leave everything to the family member who served as their caregiver.
There are even scenarios in which family members lose their inheritance rights to a professional caregiver, like a nurse that came out to an older adult home to provide daily support. In a situation where a caregiver suddenly becomes a primary beneficiary, the other likely beneficiaries may question the legitimacy of last-minute estate planning changes.
Undue influence from a caregiver can take on many forms. It might involve slowly eliminating someone’s contact with other family members and then manipulating them into thinking that no one ever wanted to visit. Undue influence could also look like someone withholding food or medication from an older adult until they agree to make some changes to their estate planning documents.
How the courts handle undue influence claims
Undue influence could potentially undermine someone’s legacy, and therefore, the courts take allegations of inappropriate outside influence quite seriously. Provided that family members and beneficiaries have some kind of documentation to support their claims, such as previous estate planning documents or possibly a diary left by the testator describing the abuse they endured, it may be possible to invalidate the estate plan that reflects outside influence.
The courts could either choose to use a previous estate plan in place of the last one created, or they might decide to treat the estate as though there were no documents in place and apply state law to guide the distribution of property. In this way, initiating probate litigation can be a means of upholding your loved one’s legacy and protecting your right to inherit from their estate.