How Undue Influence Can Invalidate a Will
So long as a will reflects a deceased person’s true intentions while alive, judges will give effect to the will, even when family members are cut out of an inheritance. The key, however, is whether the will truly reflects the wishes of the person who drafted it (the “testator”).
Sometimes, a person changes their will because they are intimidated or coerced into doing so. If so, then this “undue influence” can override the free will of the testator and render the will invalid. Undue influence is one of the primary grounds people raise for contesting a will in Texas, and you should consider whether to bring this claim in probate court.
What is Undue Influence?
Often, family members suspect that there has been undue influence when a will either disinherits them entirely or contains a surprise gift to someone unexpected. These situations are called unnatural dispositions, and they are enough to raise eyebrows.
It’s important to understand that an unnatural disposition does not, by itself, establish undue influence. Instead, undue influence exists whenever someone takes advantage of a testator’s age, fragility, inexperience, illness, or dependency. To bring a will contest for undue influence, you will need to prove the following:
- Someone exerted influence over how the will was created. A court will look at the relationship of the testator to the influencer, including how much control the influencer has over them and any opportunities for undue influence.
- The influence must have been sufficiently strong that it overcame the testator, considering all factors, such as age, illness, and infirmity.
- The testator would not have made the challenged disposition but for the influence.
If you can establish all three, you might win your will contest for undue influence.
What are Examples of Undue Influence?
There are some common fact patterns when it comes to undue influence. For example, consider the following:
An elderly man moves in with his youngest daughter, who takes care of him as he fights cancer and old age. Suddenly, the elderly man changes his will to cut out his two older children entirely and leaves his entire estate to his youngest daughter. In this situation, it looks as if the caretaker daughter might have exerted undue influence to get her father to change his will to benefit her.
A sick woman hires an at-home attendant to take care of her. After several months, the attendant schedules a secret meeting with a lawyer and takes her charge to visit, telling no one in the family. At the meeting, the sick woman amends her previously will to leave a substantial gift to her attendant, diminishing the gifts to her children in the process. Based on these facts, family members might bring a will contest for undue influence.
How Do You Win a Will Contest for Undue Influence?
People who think they were cheated out of an inheritance can challenge the will in probate court. A judge will need to hear evidence from other people to determine whether the will reflects the testator’s true wishes. Often, witnesses include:
- Friends of the deceased
- The testator’s lawyer
Remember that it is not illegal for an elderly person to leave a gift, even a very large gift, to the person who took care of them during their final illness. Instead, you need to establish that the testator would not have made the gift but for the influence exerted on him or her.
If the judge is convinced that the will accurately reflects the testator’s wishes, she can admit the will to probate (unless it is challenged on another ground). If the judge does not think the will reflects the testator’s wishes, then she can invalidate the will. In that case, a prior will goes into effect or the estate is distributed according to the state’s intestacy laws if there is no will.
Speak with a Probate Lawyer in Texas Today
To bring a Texas will contest over undue influence, you need quality evidence that establishes your loved one was coerced into changing his or her will. These cases are complex, and family members need an experienced probate attorney in their corner before the case even begins.
At Lindquist Wood Edwards, our team of Texas probate attorneys has handled multiple will contests, and we understand what evidence the judge is looking for. We will carefully review all evidence, including medical records, to determine if your loved one was susceptible to another’s undue influence.
To find out more about how we can help, please contact us today to schedule your free consultation.