Grandma Left the Money to Whom? Legal Options for Undue Influence and Changing of Wills

Gray Reed
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Gray Reed

Ernest “Big Daddy” Bux’s great Auntie Heidi Loper moved to a retirement community when her husband Sam retired years go. A short time later, Sam died. Over the years Heidi’s handyman Don Meetdirts and his wife Ada befriended Heidi. They persuaded her to leave them millions of dollars in cash and other items. Prior Wills would have left Heidi’s property to her family of whom she was very proud – both of the Bux family name and of the assets she and Sam had acquired. When the Wills were changed, Heidi had failing eyesight, deteriorating health and a delicate mental condition. When Big Daddy and the Bux family learned at Auntie Loper’s death that the Meetdirts were the only beneficiaries under the last Will, they asked their favorite attorney if they have a claim of undue influence to deny the Meetdirts any inheritance. Do they?

Legally

Maybe. In Texas, undue influence is generally described as such influence or dominion as to destroy the free agency of the testator, and substitute the Will of another in its place – compelling the maker of the Will to do that which is against their will because of fear, the desire of peace, or some feeling they cannot resist. Setting aside a Will based on undue influence requires Big Daddy to show: an influence that was asserted, that subverted or overpowered Heidi’s mind when the Will was executed, and that Heidi would not have executed the Will but for the influence. While that seems impossible to prove after Heidi died, the following factors are relevant: (a) the nature and type of the relationship between Heidi and the Meetdirts, (b) the Meetdirts’ opportunities to exert undue influence, (c) the motive, character, and conduct of the Meetdirts, including their dire financial straits, (d) Heidi’s mental and physical condition when she signed the Will, including the extent to which she depended on and was subject to the control of the Meetdirts, and (e) whether giving the entirety of her estate to a non-family member is unnatural in disposing of her property.

Practically

Undue influence is very difficult to prove because Heidi – the person who made the Will – died some time ago, the undue influence efforts of the Meetdirts occurred over years and Daddy Bux and his family have little more to offer than circumstantial evidence. Simply put, undue influence is a function of considering – and equally weighing – the following; (i) the vulnerability of the victim; (ii) the influencer’s apparent authority, (iii) the actions and tactics used by the influencer, and (iv) the equity of the result – giving the entire estate to a non-family member.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor

Given the difficulty of proving that a family member – after their death – was unduly influenced to give their estate to a non-family member, the burden of proof is very high. Under very specific circumstances, some states require non-family beneficiaries to prove that their relationship was not one of undue influence. Texas should consider amending its statutes to provide that certain people in care positions with the elderly must prove they did not benefit by undue influence. Florida case law presumes undue influence affecting the burden of proof arises when: someone who has a substantial benefit under the Will, possessed a confidential relationship with the decedent, and was active in the procurement of the Will. In Illinois, the law states that certain facts will give rise to a rebuttable presumption of undue influence: a fiduciary relationship between the testator and a person who receives a substantial benefit under the Will, a testator in a dependent situation in which the substantial beneficiaries were in dominant roles, and a testator who reposed trust and confidence in such beneficiaries.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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