Litigating Undue Influence Disputes

Photo: Elder Woman Signing Will Under Undue Influence

When a person creates a will or trust, he or she is legally required to have the capacity to sign the document. The law also requires that the person be exercising his or her own free will in determining the contents of the document, including those relating to who will benefit from the will or trust.

Especially in the case of elders who may be experiencing cognitive issues, there are situations in which someone — such as a family member, caregiver, or trusted friend or advisor — applies pressure on the person signing the document, in effect forcing that person to make changes to the provisions. In those cases, it may be possible to contest the document on the basis of a legal concept called undue influence.

What Is Undue Influence?

Minnesota statutes do not define undue influence, but Minnesota court decisions address it in many opinions. In the absence of statutory law, court decisions set standards for making determinations in subsequent cases.

In undue influence cases, one of the most oft-quoted and relied on definitions comes from a 1947 case:

Undue influence is influence of such a degree exerted upon the individual by another that it destroys or overcomes the individual’s free agency and substitutes the will of the person exercising for the influence of that of the individual.

In other words, undue influence occurs when another person unfairly or unduly uses control over the individual creating the will or trust documents, forcing that individual to change the contents of the document, usually to benefit the person exerting the controlling. The control can be relatively subtle and involve a course of conduct over a period of time, or it can be use of outright threats — such as withholding care.

Understanding what constitutes undue influence is only a first step. To contest a will or trust on the basis of undue influence, the challenger must be able to produce evidence to demonstrate that undue influence occurred.

Proving Undue Influence

While Minnesota law does not define undue influence, it does contain a provision relating to the burden of proof in a contested probate proceeding where a will is challenged on the basis of undue influence or other impermissible conduct. The statute provides that the contestant has the burden of proof in establishing undue influence. It states further that a party with the burden of proof on an issue also has the ultimate burden of persuasion regarding that issue.

Since the person who created and signed the document is no longer able to provide testimony regarding his or her wishes or intentions, proving undue influence in a probate court proceeding requires considerable investigation and production of documentary evidence and witness testimony in court. Evidence of a situation involving undue influence can include:

  • Showing that the will or trust left property to people who normally would not inherit from the decedent and that close family members were omitted as beneficiaries, without a logical explanation;
  • Demonstrating that the decedent was especially dependent on or trusted in the person who applied the pressure, including situations involving confidential relationships;
  • Establishing that the decedent’s mental or physical state made him or her particularly susceptible to undue influence;
  • Proving that the influencer, by words or conduct, substituted his or her own wishes for those of the creator.

To prove any of these facts, evidence must be produced in court. In addition to using medical records to demonstrate the physical and mental state of the individual who created the will or trust, testimony of witnesses can be used to bolster the case. Those witnesses can include:

  • Doctors and other healthcare providers who treated the decedent;
  • Family members who were close to the decedent;
  • Close friends of the decedent;
  • Caregivers and others who worked in the decedent’s household;
  • A guardian or conservator;
  • Lawyers and financial advisors who helped the decedent.

Undue influence is not established by any single fact. Demonstrating undue influence involves showing that under all the circumstances existing in the particular case, a specific person exerted undue influence to force the decedent to make changes in a will or trust that were contrary to the decedent’s wishes and free will.

Filing an Undue Influence Claim

Only certain people can file an undue influence claim. To be eligible, you must be either a beneficiary of the will or trust, or be an heir under Minnesota’s laws of intestate succession. Heirs generally include a spouse, children, parents, and siblings.

If you qualify to file a claim and are in circumstances where you suspect that someone may have exerted undue influence to get the terms of a will or trust changed, it is essential to discuss the case with an experienced probate litigation lawyer. Only a knowledgeable attorney will be able to advise you whether a claim might be viable under Minnesota laws.

Proving a case of undue influence is complex and difficult. Most often, the evidence is primarily circumstantial. The court hearing likely will involve introduction of considerable documentary evidence and witness testimony both in support and in opposition to the claim.

It is important to note that while undue influence claims arise most often in connection with a will or trust, undue influence can occur in situations involving other documents as well. An undue influence claim can also be utilized to challenge the validity of documents such as powers of attorney and healthcare directives, gifts, deeds, and other contracts.

Talk With a Trusted Twin Cities Probate Litigation Attorney

Bringing a case for undue influence requires investigatory and analytical ability, in addition to knowledge of the law and experience in Minnesota probate court proceedings. As a probate litigation attorney, my practice at the Dave Burns Law Office includes handling undue influence and other claims involving Minnesota wills and trusts, as well as other issues relating to the validity of legal documents based on a person’s lack of capacity or other reasons. I work with family members, other beneficiaries of an estate, personal representatives, creditors, and trustees facing probate and estate disputes.

If you are facing a situation involving a possible undue influence claim or another contested estate matter that may require probate litigation, I welcome you to contact me at (612) 677-8351 or by emailing dave@daveburnslaw.com. I work with clients throughout the Twin Cities metro area and am available to meet with clients in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Categories: Litigation, Probate