People who are unpleasantly surprised when they don’t receive an inheritance from a close relative, usually a parent or grandparent, may suspect that they were somehow cheated. And sometimes they’re right. Elderly or ill people are sometimes taken advantage of by those close to them, who manipulate them into cutting out close family members—and leaving assets to the influencer instead. This is called "undue influence," and if it’s proven in court, a will can be ruled invalid.
A relative who suspects undue influence must contest the will in probate court, after the will-maker’s death. Laws vary from state to state, but generally, to win a lawsuit charging that a will was written under undue influence, the person bringing the lawsuit must usually prove that:
These factors all point to a situation where a vulnerable person is taken advantage of. It’s common that the will-maker is elderly and frail, and suffering from some mild dementia, but that’s not always the case.
A person of any age can be susceptible to improper influence because of physical or mental illness.
A “confidential relationship” means a relationship of trust between the will-maker and the other person. People who are in a position to control a vulnerable person’s living situation or finances are the ones who have the opportunity to exert undue influence over estate planning. For example, undue influence may be exerted by a lawyer, a caretaker, or a relative.
It can be difficult to prove undue influence, because it’s impossible to know what someone—who is no longer around to tell you—was thinking when he or she made a will. Ultimately, a judge (jury trials are very rare in probate court) must decide, based on the testimony of witnesses, whether or not someone exerted improper influence. Courts often hear from doctors, relatives, caregivers, lawyers, and anyone else who has knowledge of the relationship between the deceased will-maker and the person who is alleged to have exerted improper influence.
It’s not enough to show that someone had influence over someone else; after all, that happens all the time and there's no reason to assume it's a bad thing. For example, a judge found that a woman had not exercised undue influence over her husband, even though she took the lead on their estate planning and spoke to their attorney about the content of their new wills, and he suffered from some degree of dementia. She did not benefit from the terms of his new will, which left property to close friends instead of to the couple’s estranged daughter. (The daughter was the one who contested her father’s will.) (Paine v. Sullivan, 950 N.E.2d 874, Mass. App. 2011.)
Another court, however, invalidated an elderly woman’s will after finding it was the product of undue influence from her friend Rose. The will, unlike previous wills, left 35% of the estate to Rose and named her as personal representative. The will-maker, Maxine, had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and witnesses at trial testified that Rose had controlled who could see her, told nursing home staff to call Rose instead of Maxine’s family members, and told family members to stay away. (In re Estate of Vestre, 799 N.W.2d 379, N. Dak. 2011)