Elyse C. Herman

Contesting a Will: Protect Your Parents From Undue Influence

Ways to Avoid Will Contests and Estate Litigation

In our estate litigation practice, inquiries from persons seeking to contest a decedent’s last will and testament are on the rise. Often the inquiry comes as the result of a parent having made an unequal distribution among his or her children, favoring one child and excluding other children as beneficiaries.

There are two grounds for contesting a last will and testament: lack of capacity and undue influence. Lack of testamentary capacity means that the decedent was not of sound mind when he or she made the will. To have testamentary capacity, a person must know in general terms what s/he has and who the natural objects of his bounty are. This is not a high standard, and challenges to a will based on lack of testamentary capacity are usually difficult to win in the absence of good medical evidence that the decedent was mentally incompetent.

More and more, our estate litigation attorneys receive calls from people who claim that the person who made the will was coerced into doing so by someone else, often a child or relative who lived near or with the decedent. Medical advances have resulted in the populace becoming much older. The care and burden of the elderly tends to fall on the shoulders of a child. Even though we like to believe that our parents will always be a great strength and knowledge in our lives, there comes a time when the roles are reversed and the child must take on responsibility for his or her parent. Such responsibilities might include the child taking on the role of caretaker.

In some families one sibling takes on a greater burden of the care of the ill and dependent parent than the other siblings. We have seen many examples where the child who takes on these responsibilities during the parent’s final years, months or even days becomes the sole heir of the parent’s estate. Sometimes, this is the bona fide choice of the parent who feels indebted to the child as a result of the care, and all the siblings are made aware of this arrangement and are in agreement.

Sometimes the arrangement is kept secret, however, and this is when problems arise. When an aged parent suffers from mental or physical infirmity that makes him or her dependent on a child caretaker, the potential for undue influence is present. The phrase undue influence with respect to the making of a will means that a person exerted influence over another such that it destroyed the free agency of the person whose will it is. In cases that we have handled one sibling has had the burden of the care of the parent, while other siblings have had minimal communications with the parent.

There is no way to prevent a sibling from taking an elderly parent to an attorneys’ office and inducing the parent to execute a new will, but some preventive measures can be taken to assure that the elderly parent is not subject to undue influence by the caretaker child.

First, have a family meeting and come to some type of financial arrangement to assist the sibling who has taken on the care of the parent. Memorialize the arrangement in writing. Second, confirm that the parent has a will and discuss the will together as a family. Third, videotape the parent explaining his/her testamentary intent and make sure the parent understands the terms of the will. Fourth, keep the lines of communication with all the siblings and the parent open.

Unfortunately, if undue influence occurs it can be difficult to prove. Because the parent has died, it becomes a situation where the only evidence is circumstantial rather than direct. Some of the circumstantial evidence a Court would find relevant would include: (1) the health of the person at the time s/he signed the will; (2) the observations and factual commentary of the attorney who prepared the will; (3) did the favored child contact the attorney; (4) was this a sudden change in disposition of the estate of the parent; (5) was the favored child at the attorney’s office when the will was signed; (6) did the favored child keep possession of the will; and (7) did the favored child keep the will a secret from the other siblings.

If you have any questions about the last will and testament of someone you know, please do not hesitate to call us.

Learn more about: Estates & Trusts Litigation

Elyse C. Herman

Commercial Law & Litigation, Estates & Trusts Litigation, Appeals, Employment & Labor

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