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Identifying Undue Influence

| Aug 21, 2023 | Probate Litigation

Undue influence occurs when a person or group pressures someone to change their Last Will and Testament or other elements of their estate plan to benefit their best interest and usually involves financial gain. Legal matters can arise when an individual falls ill and a friend or family member steps in to provide care and becomes close to the individual, only to take advantage of that proximity to engage in self-interested manipulation. The person guilty of influencing the vulnerable may be family, friends, a romantic interest, a company, or a caregiver. In many cases estate’s beneficiaries do not find evidence of wrongdoing or realize that significant changes have been made until after the estate owner’s death, when probate or other proceedings bring those changes to light. To learn more about undue influence, including steps to take if you suspect undue influence may have played a role in a loved one’s unexpected directives, contact an experienced estate planning lawyer at Shepherd and Long, PC, by calling 865-383-3118 to schedule your personal consultation.

Defining Undue Influence

Undue influence can happen in many areas, but in estate law, generally it means that one party persuades another individual to distribute their assets in a manner contrary to the free and independent exercise of their best judgment and to the influencer’s benefit. Many cases of families or beneficiaries of the deceased suspecting undue influence end up in probate court as challenges to the will. In cases where the estate owner is still alive, concerned family members may go to the courts to petition for guardianship.

According to the American Bar Association, however, most instances of undue influence take place behind closed doors and can be challenging to identify. The act is a form of psychological abuse by friends, caregivers, or even telemarketers. Unsurprisingly, undue influence is often a significant factor in cases of elder abuse that involve financial exploitation.

When it can be proven that someone in a position to exercise influence has used that opportunity to persuade a vulnerable individual to change their estate plan to the manipulating party’s own advantage, the probate court could find that undue influence occurred. .

Tennessee Cases and Undue Influence

In one Tennessee court decision, Hunter, Ryan, Ellis Et Al. V. Christina L. Duggan, the grandchildren and residuary beneficiaries of a deceased individual, filed a lawsuit for damages against the decedent’s niece. This niece had held power of attorney for the last few years of the individual’s life. Shortly before death, the estate transferred $176,000 to the niece’s bank account so she could purchase a new home. The court found the sudden transfer of a large sum of funds was evidence of undue influence and ordered the defendant to return the funds to the beneficiaries.

The court based its decision on the clear evidence of suspicious activity occurring that is required to prove undue influence. The defendant was a caretaker; the individual she was caring for had a severe illness; the transfer of funds was sudden and unexpected; and the defendant benefited from the transaction. An estate planning lawyer at Shepherd and Long, PC may be able to help you determine if there is evidence of undue influence in your situation.

The Elements of Undue Influence

To prove the presence of undue influence, a plaintiff must establish that circumstances were in place that made the individual vulnerable to manipulation or persuasion. Proof of vulnerability could be a severe illness, incapacity, mental disabilities, or emotional duress. The plaintiff must also show that the person they accuse of undue influence was in a position to exercise influence over the vulnerable individual. The specific elements that must be present to establish undue influence include the following:

Vulnerability of the Victim

The first component the plaintiff must establish in undue influence proceedings is that the victim was vulnerable to manipulation. That could be with evidence of incapacity, age, or illness. The case must also establish the defendant knew or should have known the individual was vulnerable to persuasion.

Signs of vulnerability include the following:

  • An elderly adult that lives alone
  • An individual with a severe medical condition
  • The person is mentally or physically disabled
  • The individual has few family members or friends nearby and is lonely
  • They have recently been recently hospitalized
  •  The individual is dependent on others for groceries, medical appointments, and banking

Each potential sign or red flag of undue influence may seem ordinary or benign, and in itself will not prove that there has been undue influence. Rather, identifying and providing evidence of one or more of these signs serves to establish that conditions of vulnerability are or were in place to create the opportunity for undue influence to occur.

Influencer’s Authority

Undue influence is a legal doctrine involving a person or group taking advantage of their power over an individual who has limited ability to resist or challenge them, for their own gain. The case must prove the defendant had authority over the individual they manipulated. That could mean they were a caregiver, healthcare provider, or fiduciary.

Overt Tactics and Inequitable Results

The plaintiff must also establish that the defendant used overt tactics and that produced inequitable results. In general, this requirement may be met by showing proof of coercion, affection, or isolation to persuade the party to change their estate plan or make financial choices that benefit the defendant.

Undue Influence: A Checklist of Red Flags

Some of the potential undue influence red flags include the following:

  • Unexpected changes to the individual will or other estate planning documents
  • An apparent discrepancy between the individual’s previous wishes and the instructions of the estate plan after death
  • Financial transactions or legal changes that are challenging to detect
  • Sudden and unexplained changes in the relationship between the will or estate plan creator and the person benefiting from the changes

One significant problem with discovering and identifying undue influence is that the abuser often hides their conduct to influence or manipulate the person to make the changes.

Meet With an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney Today

When a party uses undue influence, in the estate planning context that usually means they use their authority to persuade a vulnerable person to leave all or most of their assets to them. Sadly, cases of undue influence involving caregivers, family, or friends are not uncommon. To prove that there has been undue influence, the plaintiff must show that the person accused of exerting undue influence had the opportunity to pressure, manipulate, or intimidate the vulnerable individual to make changes that have materially benefited them. If you believe a loved one is being influenced or suspect that undue influence occurred, it is crucial to take action quickly. Call an experienced estate planning lawyer at Shepherd and Long, PC, at 865-383-3118 for questions about undue influence and legal advice on identifying it.