People usually think of probate proceedings as a technicality required to settle someone’s financial obligations and oversee the distribution of their personal property to their heirs and beneficiaries. For many estates, probate oversight is a technical requirement, as the courts will have minimal role in the actual estate administration process.
Not every family is that fortunate. There are occasionally circumstances in which people have questions about the validity of the paperwork presented after someone’s death. People may question whether a will is valid for a number of different reasons. Sometimes, if people make unexpected changes that benefit one person, other people with an interest in the estate will start to question whether there might have been undue influence involved.
What is undue influence?
A will or any other estate planning document should accurately reflect what someone wants, not the wishes of the other people in their life. Undue influence is what occurs when someone leverages their relationship with a testator to manipulate and coerce them into setting certain terms. Undue influence often means that someone who lives close to the testator or who serves in a caregiving role, like one of their children or a new spouse, ends up manipulating an individual to change their documents for their personal benefit.
How does litigation help?
When family members and those concerned about the terms of an estate plan believe that the beneficiary receiving questionable bequests may have influenced the will, they can relate that information to the courts. The more evidence they have of misconduct, such as people refusing to allow visitors to visit the testator when their health declines, the easier it may be to prove that they manipulated or otherwise inappropriately influenced the testator’s decisions.
If the courts agree with the assertion that an outside individual inappropriately influenced an estate plan, they can set the document aside. The estate could then make use of an earlier document that might more accurately reflect someone’s wishes, or the courts could treat the person’s estate as though they died without a will. The intestate succession process will mean that spouses and children inherit someone’s property. If someone dies with a questionable will and no spouse or progeny, then other, close family members will have the right to inherit from their estate.
Although it can seem crass to go to court over dissatisfaction with an inheritance, the alternative might be allowing someone else to benefit from misconduct that undermined a testator’s true wishes. Challenging a will based on undue influence may be a necessary step if someone interfered in a now-deceased individual’s estate planning process.