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What does 'undue influence' look like?

The death of a loved one can be devastating. Learning that he or she left behind a will with unusual or unexpected terms can make the situation even more upsetting.

In some cases, the will could be so troubling that people suspect it is not an accurate representation of what the will-maker wanted. In such situations, determining if a person was unduly influenced can be critical for the purposes of setting the will aside.

What is undue influence?

In the context of estate planning, undue influence involves one person using a position of authority or control to threaten, coerce or manipulate the will-maker into making decisions that do not align with the will-maker's true wishes.

Some tactics that influencers might use to do this include:

  • Isolating the will-maker from his or her family
  • Preventing the will-maker from speaking with loved ones alone
  • Developing emotional connections suddenly when the victim is especially vulnerable
  • Lying about financial information
  • Withholding care or medication
  • Threatening a person's safety
  • Intercepting financial statements, personal messages and other information and keeping them from the victim

These efforts make victims feel confused, scared or dependent on the influencer, which can result in them making decisions they otherwise would not make.

Undue influence in a will

Often, it is not until a person's will is read that people see the signs of undue influence. Elements that can be especially suspicious include:

  • Drastic changes in distributions
  • Exclusions of family members
  • Sizable gifts or property set aside for the alleged influencer
  • Missing money or property that was spent or sold before the person passed away

Under these circumstances, parties suspecting undue influence can take legal action to have the courts set aside the will. To do this, as this article explains, courts must find that the will-maker was vulnerable, and the influencer coerced him or her into making decisions that went against his or her wishes.

Considering how complicated this can be to prove, it is typically wise to consult a lawyer if you wish to pursue legal action.

Contesting a will for any reason may be emotional and complicated. However, when a person may have been the victim of undue influence, such action is about more than getting beneficiaries what they are entitled to; it is about preserving the decedent's true wishes and protecting his or her legacy.

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