The purpose of estate planning is to ensure that a person’s wishes are carried out exactly as they would have intended in the event of their death or incapacitation. Estate planning can only serve that purpose, however, if a person’s estate planning documents are true representations of the person’s wishes. While there are many legal formalities that are designed to ensure that this is the case, undue influence occurs far too often in probate law, particularly among the elderly. Below, our Springfield elder lawyers discuss what undue influence is and a few of its red flags to watch out for.
What Is Undue Influence?
To be valid and enforceable, estate planning instruments — including wills, trusts, and powers of attorney — must be executed freely, willingly, and of the individual’s own volition. Undue influence occurs when another person (the “influencer”) supplants the testator’s free will with their own through trickery, coercion, deception, or fraud. Allegations of undue influence may arise, for example, where a testator makes an unusual bequest in their will or other estate planning document that indicates that someone else may be pulling the strings.
Warning Signs of Undue Influence
In Missouri, a presumption of undue influence arises where the evidence shows (1) a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the testator and the alleged influencer, (2) a substantial benefit to the alleged influencer, and (3) facts and circumstances showing undue influence. A confidential relationship is one of trust and reliance wherein one party relies upon the other party for support, care, or advice (such as an attorney/client relationship). A substantial benefit to the alleged influencer in many cases is a bequest in the testator’s will. But what are “facts and circumstances showing undue influence”?
Those facts and circumstances will vary from case to case, but Missouri courts have identified several factors that are relevant when evaluating claims of undue influence, including:
- The mental and physical condition of the testator (i.e., the weaker the testator’s mental state, the more susceptible to undue influence)
- The opportunity of the alleged influencer to exert undue influence
- An unnatural disposition of the testator’s property
- A sudden change in dispositions from prior estate planning documents
- The active involvement of the alleged influencer in securing the documents
- The active involvement of the alleged influencer in securing the attorney who prepares the documents
- Hostile feelings of the alleged influencer toward other presumptive heirs
- Derogatory remarks by the alleged influencer toward other presumptive heirs
- Isolation of the testator from friends and family
These factors do not necessarily indicate that undue influence is occurring. However, the occurrence of one or more of them, coupled with a confidential relationship and a benefit to the alleged influencer, can be strong evidence of potential undue influence.
Talk Through Your Concerns With a Springfield Elder Lawyer
If you suspect that provisions in a family member’s estate planning documents may be the result of undue influence, you should consider speaking to an attorney who can help you evaluate the merits of your claim. To get started, please contact the Springfield elder lawyers at Parks & Jones by calling 877-376-5291 or using our online contact form.
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