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When is a will invalid because of undue influence?

A will is typically considered invalid if the person writing the will (the testator) signed, modified or revoked the will because of the undue influence of another person. In this context, "undue influence" means that the perpetrator puts coercive, manipulative pressure on the victim to force him or her to execute or change a will in favor of the wrongdoer.

The coerced change normally gives the perpetrator some financial gain, such as being named to inherit money or property. The victim of such coercion is often vulnerable because of age or disability.

A recent American Bar Association newsletter elaborated on the phenomenon of undue influence as being a "form of psychological abuse ... usually recognized as a process whereby one person manipulates the trust, fears, dependency, and vulnerabilities of another for personal gain."

California undue influence law

California courts have decided many decades of will contests based on undue influence, so the common law (that made by judges in written opinions) is well developed. In 2014, the legislature added a statute to the Probate Code that incorporates the definition of undue influence from an elder abuse statute into the context of wills and similar matters. The probate law says that this definition supplements the common law, but does not replace it.

This definition says undue influence is "excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person's free will and results in inequity." The court must examine four factors:

  • The victim's vulnerability and whether the "influencer knew or should have known" about it
  • The influencer's apparent authority over the victim because of a relationship like that of a relative, caretaker, doctor, lawyer, "spiritual advisor" or similar role
  • Influencer actions or tactics such as controlling necessities like sleep, medicine, or access to others or to information; use of "affection, intimidation, or coercion"; and secretly or quickly making changes to the victim's "personal or property rights"
  • Equity or fairness (or unfairness) of the result

Here at Duggan Law Corporation, our attorneys represent people either challenging or defending claims of alleged undue influence in will contests, which are lawsuits filed in probate court to challenge the validity of wills. These suits can be complicated, requiring significant investigation of the questionable circumstances, as well as emotionally charged for all involved.

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