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Estate Planning and Undue Influence

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

The story of heiress Huguette Clark, a millionaire many times over, but living alone in a single hospital room, has sparked a national conversation on many elements of late in life concerns. Issues of elder abuse, fraud and questions regarding estate planning and wills have all come to mind since the story of the reclusive heiress captured our attention.

Currently, questions are being asked about the influence of and possible abuse by Huguette Clark's financial and legal advisors. One question that may arise and need legal answers is that of undue influence on a will or in estate planning in general. Although rare, undue influence is a recognized legal issue that can be used to invalidate an agreement, including otherwise valid will.

Laws concerning the making of wills and other forms of estate planning, such as trusts, vary from state to state. However, in general, a court may consider the existence of undue influence when a person who is in a position of trust (a caregiver, an advisor, or an adult child) manipulates a vulnerable person to leave all, or most, of his property to that person. California law for instance, defines undue influence as "the use, by one in whom a confidence is reposed by another, or who holds a real or apparent authority over him, of such confidence or authority for the purpose of obtaining an unfair advantage over him." Testators (the author of a will) who are quite elderly or are in poor health can be targets for such influence.

One red flag a court might consider when looking into the possibility of undue influence on a will may involve the situation where a natural beneficiary is passed over in favor of one with less right to inherent. One example of this situation is that of a surviving spouse of the testator who is disinherited in favor of a caregiver. However, the vast majority of wills are accepted with no challenge. Deference to the wishes of the testator is given unless a will is found to be invalid because undue influence or other legal challenges to that will are proven. The burden of proof in these cases is on the party challenging the will.

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