Financial security is at the heart of estate planning. That is why our loved ones work diligently to create the type of estate plan that best provides for their loved ones and the causes they care about. Yet, because significant assets are often in play during the estate planning and distribution process, sometimes questions arise as to the validity of an executed estate plan. This is especially true when assets are left in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense. If you’ve been cut out of your loved one’s estate plan or received less than you thought you would, then you know this reality all too well.
This situation can be incredibly stressful, particularly if you’ve experienced a major life event recently, whether that be the birth of a child, a divorce, the loss of a job, or marriage. You’re probably concerned about your future as you struggle to cope with the confusion, the heartache, and the anger that accompanies these situations. But you don’t have to let the situation get the best of you. Instead, you can investigate the matter and consider initiating probate litigation, as doing so could right the wrong and ensure that you receive the assets to which you are entitled.
One way to do this is to show that the estate plan in question was affected by undue influence. Undue influence is the process through which an outside party manipulates the outcome of any aspect of an estate plan, but most commonly a will or trust. Here are some signs of undue influence that you should look for as you consider the best options available to you moving forward:
- The beneficiary had power over the testator: In many cases of undue influence, the influencer has a lot of power over the person who is creating the will or trust. The influencer may be providing care for the elderly person who is creating the estate plan, or they may be a trusted advisor. An individual can gain an enormous amount of influence if he or she is preventing a loved one from going into a nursing home. Far too often this fact is used as leverage to coerce an outcome that benefits the influencer.
- Your loved one suddenly became isolated when the beneficiary stepped into the picture: Sudden isolation can be indicative of being subjected to controlling behavior. This drastic change should be a big red flag.
- The beneficiary was present when the will was drafted: Presence during will drafting can cause will drafter to fear the ramifications if it doesn’t include the influencer and provide for him or her generously. Note that there don’t have to be any threats of harm in order for undue influence to occur, although threats are certainly evidence of such influence.
- The beneficiary identified witnesses to the signing of estate plan documents: These witnesses won’t be able to identify undue influence and they might not even care if they do. By identifying witnesses, the influencer can keep you out of the picture so that questions aren’t asked and your loved one doesn’t have the ability to say what’s really going on.
- The beneficiary recommended an attorney who drafted estate planning documents: The same tactic is utilized here as is with witnesses. Be wary if your loved one suddenly changed legal representation in these matters based on a recommendation by the influencer.
- The beneficiary gave directions to the testator and anybody else involved in the estate planning process: Any evidence of giving directions can be a strong indication of undue influence. Try to determine how the estate planning documents in question were created and who played a role in creating the terms contained with them.
- You identify any drastic modifications to your loved one’s estate plan: A major shift in your loved one’s estate plan can be a big red flag that undue influence has occurred, especially if those changes are all in favor of one individual.
- Identify any other estate planning actions that are out of character for your loved one: You know your loved one, so you should trust your gut feeling. If your loved one started acting in a way that is contrary to their character, then try to figure out why. There’s a decent chance that those actions were taken due to some sort of influence.
- The beneficiary tends or tended to speak for your loved one: This is another sign of controlling behavior that can help you show that your loved one was under the influence of another.
When a lot of assets are at stake, proving undue influence can be a major fight. Therefore, if you want to engage in probate litigation in hopes of showing undue influence and recovering what is rightfully yours, then you need to consider the signs discussed above and consider discussing your situation with an attorney of your choosing. Perhaps then you can ensure that your loved one’s true intent becomes reality.