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Challenging the Effect of “Undue Influence” on a Will

When the Surrogate’s Court is handling a Will Contest, different parties have different burdens of proof.

{Read in 4 Minutes}  As a Trusts and Estates attorney, I am constantly in the Surrogate’s Court dealing with Wills that people offer for probate. While the Surrogate’s Court is generally very quick and efficient, every now and then, there will be a little hiccup. If there is a hiccup, it often takes the form of a Will Contest

A party may object to probate for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they might allege that the deceased did not properly execute their Will. Sometimes it might be because they believe the deceased lacked testamentary capacity when they signed the Will. Or that the deceased was the subject of undue influence, which should invalidate the Will. I’d like to focus on the issue of undue influence for this article. 

When the Surrogate’s Court is handling a Will Contest, different parties have different burdens of proof. The nominated Executor needs to prove testamentary capacity and proper execution. However, an objecting party bears the burden of proof on the issue of undue influence. This means that when the matter comes to trial before a jury, or when the Court is considering a motion for summary judgment, the objecting party must show that they have sufficient evidence of undue influence to prevail.

Let’s start with the definition. Courts consider undue influence to be some external force that was exerted upon the decedent by a third party that affected them in such a way that they made provisions in a Will that they would otherwise not be inclined to make. It is not any influence that will invalidate a Will — it must be undue influence. For example, Courts will not consider being an exemplary grandchild to your favorite (and rich!) grandparents, as undue influence. The behavior in question needs to rise to a level that a Court will believe the decedent would not have made the provision in their Will but for the introduction of the influence.

Here are some examples of things that Courts have, in the past, ruled might rise to that level. 

  • Isolating the deceased from other friends and family members while rendering them completely dependent upon you for food, medical care, and/or their physical safety. 
  • Spreading lies about other potential beneficiaries that would cause the deceased to exclude them from the Will when the deceased would be inclined to do otherwise. 
  • Convincing the deceased to leave all of the money to one beneficiary because that beneficiary “knows what’s best” and would distribute the funds to other beneficiaries on the decedent’s behalf.
  • Alienating the deceased from their longstanding estate planning attorney and bringing them to a new attorney selected by the person who is now to receive a larger inheritance than before.
  • Similarly, selecting an attorney that speaks only English, if the deceased is not a native English speaker and their English proficiency is shaky.

Undue influence is a very common allegation when an objecting party challenges a Will. However, just raising the allegation does not mean that the objecting party is going to have sufficient proof to convince the Courts. The Courts dismiss the vast majority of undue influence cases for lack of evidence. It’s helpful to have third parties who can testify to this and support the claim — friends, family members, neighbors, attorneys, etc.

If there is a bona fide undue influence claim, this may also give rise to the opportunity for settlement of the claim to prevent the case from lingering for great lengths of time pending trial and the accompanying attorney fees that go along with that. For more information on this topic, please contact me.