What Does “Undue Influence” Mean in Challenging a Will?

HNWEstate Administration and Probate

  • How can a court determine if a testator was unduly influenced?
  • If you help someone prepare their Will, does it become invalid?

undue-influenceUndue Influence is a type of coercion or persuasion that is improper.  The reason that influence over another person is sometimes regarded as improper or “undue” is because some types of relationships allow one party to exert a degree of control over the other party. The Supreme Court of New Jersey defined undue influence in the making of a Will in the 1981 Haynes case as “moral or physical exertion which has … prevented the testator from following the dictates of his own mind and accepting the domination … of another.”  The courts of this State therefore look to the relationship between the person making the Will and the person benefitting from the Will to see whether the testator was vulnerable, either from age, illness, or other dependency, such that someone would have been able to take advantage of the testator.

Undue Influence, as a legal claim, is one of the most frequent court filings in Will contest cases because elder abuse is regrettably so commonplace in New Jersey and across the United States.  Often in cases where a Will is changed, either amended or by codicil, to include a beneficiary met late-in-life, or a non-blood caretaker, or something extra to one of several children for example, a claim of Undue Influence may follow.

Not all influence is “undue,” we must remember.  There are cases where family members are estranged.  There are cases where there is an imbalance of affection among beneficiaries, such as when a testator has children from different marriages.  There are cases where we see that some people never let go of grudges.  There are quiet, random acts of charity.  There are cases where spite is as much of a motivation as loyalty, love or fairness are in other cases.  Each case is different, but in many of the above examples there may be a tendency for a disfavored beneficiary to wish to place blame on a recipient for nothing that person has done.

Another example of a case where careful analysis is required is when someone assists someone else in preparing a Will.  By “assist” we may be talking about something as innocent as driving the testator to and from attorney appointments where the testator and attorney speak privately (the other party does not sit in).  We may also be talking about someone who acts as the scribe, typing what the testator may or may not have dictated.  And sometimes “assist” means things like participating in attorney conferences, opening the testator’s mail, revising drafts of the Will or even holding a pen in the infirm testator’s hand to physically sign the document.  Some types of assistance are harmless but sometimes the manner of “helping” with the preparation of a Will can tend to suggest or even prove Undue Influence.

When courts are asked to determine if a Will should be voided as the product of Undue Influence, the court will review a multitude of facts and circumstances.  While the issue of the testator’s vulnerability and the issue of someone’s control over the testator are always relevant, there is no fixed analysis that works in every case because every case is different.  The best advice you will receive is to have a skilled lawyer by your side.

If you are looking for additional details on this topic or if you require advice about your situation, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com.  Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.

Written by Christopher Balioni, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright

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