"Undue Influence" in Trust and Estate Litigation

Undue Influence is a term often heard in the Elder Law field. For those not up on their legal jargon, "undue influence" essentially means one person taking advantage of another, typically for financial gain. When it comes to trust and estate litigation (or probate law), California defines undue influence as “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity." In other words, the influence is "excessive" and results in a situation in which the person exerting the influence gains something. The gain is typically a financial one. Undue influence is often a valid ground for will or trust contests. If one can offer proof of undue influence, a will or trust can potentially be declared invalid.

A recent example of a case involving undue influence is the Tom Benson case. Businessman and owner of the New Orleans Saints Tom Benson, aged 87, made an abrupt change to his estate plan which essentially gave everything to his new (and much younger) wife and cut out his children. As might be expected, the children immediately took the matter to court. Another well known case in California, Lintz v. Lintz, also involved the new wife of a millionaire businessman and his disinherited children. In the case of Tom Benson, the children and their attorneys were unable to prove elder abuse or undue influence. In the case of Lintz v. Lintz, however, they were able to prove undue influence by his widow (and third wife). In this case, his most recent trust was declared invalid.

Because of the prevalence of elder abuse in probate law (the court which governs estate and trust law), California enacted a new code in January 2014 - California Probate Code Section 86, and California Welfare and Institutions Code Section 15610.70. The new law more specifically defines undue influence in the context of probate law. In particular, the code clearly defines the ways in which a victim can be "vulnerable." This vulnerability is not necessarily incompetence, or lack of mental capacity.

The law says that when determining whether or not undue influence has occurred, the court will carefully consider evidence as to the vulnerability of the victim. This evidence includes the victim's level of mental or physical capacity, emotional and mental health, education level, as well as their perceived authority of the influencer. Evidence that illustrates the conduct of the influencer is also taken in to account. And lastly, the "equity" of the result of the alleged undue influence is taken in to consideration. For example, if the influencer significantly increased their financial gain at the expense of other family members, as was the case in Lintz. v. Lintz.

Elder abuse and undue influence have long been a serious problem in the area of Probate Law. The new laws set out by the state of California last year improve the position of a plaintiff who has solid evidence of undue influence. They give both the plaintiff and their attorney a clear cut way to present their case and ensure that justice is done.

As an Elder Law attorney in the San Francisco East Bay, I have worked on many cases that involve elder abuse and undue influence. When the victim is still living, the first priority in all cases is their care and well being. When the victim has passed, the priority becomes honoring their wishes and seeing that justice is done.

If you believe that a trust or will may be invalid because of undue influence, OR if someone in your family  is being subjected to elder abuse, contact an Elder Law attorney. I offer a free consultation from my Elder Law office in downtown Walnut Creek, and will be happy to speak with you. Call 925-322-1763.