Proving the Elements of Undue Influence
A will can be invalidated if the person challenging it (the contestant) proves that the will was obtained because someone exerted undue influence on the testator. Undue influence cases typically arise when family members are disinherited and the testator leaves the bulk of his estate to one individual who may or may not be a relative. But a will won't be set aside just because the testator disinherits some or all of his or her relatives. To succeed in invalidating a will on the ground of undue influence, the will contestant must prove (1) another person exerted influence over the testator; (2) the influence overpowered the testator's mind, and (3) the testator would not have executed the will in the absence of the influence.
Existence of the influence
In deciding whether the testator was influenced, the court considers many factors, such as how the testator, the will contestant, and the alleged influencer are related; whether the alleged influencer had an opportunity to exert influence; the circumstances under which the will was prepared and executed; the alleged influencer's motive; and whether the testator was habitually subjected to control.
The alleged influencer's presence when the testator met with an attorney to discuss the terms of the will or to execute the will can be important evidence of influence.
The influence was undue
An influence is undue only if “the free agency of the testator is destroyed and a testament is produced that expresses the will of the one exerting the influence rather than the will of the testator.” But for the influence the testator would not have executed the will The most important factor in determining if the testator would not otherwise have executed the will is whether it makes an unnatural disposition. An “unnatural disposition” is one that the testator had no logical reason to make, other than the undue influence. Disinheriting a child is not necessarily evidence of an unnatural disposition if the testator and the child were alienated, even if the other children tried to talk the testator into it. Similarly, leaving the bulk of one's estate to one child is not necessarily an “unnatural disposition” if the testator and the child were especially close.
Example of undue influence
Here's an example of a recent case in which, the Texas Court of Appeals found a will to be the result of undue influence. The will left the testator's entire estate to one daughter, disinheriting her other three half-siblings. The court found the following facts significant:
- The daughter, not an attorney, actually prepared the will leaving everything to herself.
- The daughter kept her mother's whereabouts secret from her half-siblings for the last year.
- The mother was completely dependent on the daughter for paying her bills and overseeing her care.
- The will was a complete departure from earlier wills in which the mother had made gifts to her other children, grandchildren, a hospital, her church, and pastor.
For assistance with a will contest or any other probate litigation, contact the Peterson Law Group at 979-703-7014. Our experienced College Station Texas probate litigation attorneys are prepared to assist with will contests, trust disputes, and fiduciary litigation.