I’ve blogged before about using the concept of undue influence to overturn a California Will or Trust. But knowing the definition of undue influence is only the first step. To make the concept of undue influence useful, you have to know how to prove the existence of undue influence in a Court of law. That can be trickier than it sounds. Let’s walk though the primary options for proving undue influence in California:
Under California law, undue influence consists of:
- John taking unfair advantage over Jane, who relies on John for her daily living needs; or
- John taking unfair advantage over Jane’s weakness of mind where Jane has Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of mental deficit; or
- John taking unfair advantage of Jane’s distressful situation, whatever that may be.
An Example of Undue Influence:
It is usually easy to spot undue influence. For example, Jane has three children, namely, John, Jerry, and Jack. Jane is living with John at the end of her life, and relies on John for her daily living needs. John does not like his brothers Jerry and Jack. Six weeks before Jane dies, John drives his mother to an attorney to change her California Will or Trust, which disinherits Jerry and Jack. Now John goes from getting one-third of his mother’s Will or Trust to getting 100 percent. The question: Did John exercise undue influence over Jane? Most likely, yes. But how do you prove undue influence under California law?
How to Prove Undue Influence under California Law:
There are two primary ways to prove undue influence under California law—by either (i) shifting the burden of proof to John, in the example above, so he then has to prove an absence of undue influence, or (ii) by Jerry or Jack proving directly that John exercised undue influence over their mother. If at all possible, it is best to shift the burden to John to prove he did not exercise undue influence over Jane because it can be very difficult to prove the absence of something. If you don’t have facts that shift the burden of proof to John, then Jerry and Jack will have the burden of proving the existence of undue influence directly.
How to Shift the Burden of Proof in an Undue Influence Case:
How do you shift the burden of proof to John so that he carries the burden to prove he did not exercise undue influence over Jane? Under California law there is a presumption of undue influence that arises if you can establish three facts:
- Confidential Relationship: Jerry and Jack must prove that John had a “confidential relationship” with Jane, which can consist of John being Jane’s trustee, or agent under a power of attorney, or conservator, or perhaps, simply being Jane’s son.
- Active Participation: John must have “actively participated” in the preparation or execution of the Will or Trust.
- Undue Benefit: John must receive an “undue benefit” by way of the new Will or Trust.
You can prove each of these facts where John (i) is the Executor or Trustee of Jane’s Will or Trust, (ii) arranged to have an attorney draft the new Will or Trust for Jane to sign, and (iii) where John’s interest in the Jane’s Will or Trust increases from one-third to a higher amount.
Once these facts are proven, there is a presumption that John exercised undue influence over Jane causing her to create the new Will or Trust; and the burden of proof shifts to John to prove the absence of undue influence, which is not easy for John to do under this fact scenario. Essentially John has to prove a negative—i.e. that undue influence did not occur.
How to Prove Undue Influence Directly:
If you can’t prove facts shifting the burden of proof to John, you must prove undue influence directly. Circumstantial evidence is enough to prove undue influence. Here are the most likely facts you need to prove undue influence directly:
Disinheriting a child: Provisions that are unnatural, cutting off from any substantial bequests the natural objections of the decedent’s bounty. When Jane disinherits Jerry and Jack, that is disinheriting her children, an unnatural act, which can indicate undue influence.
Contradicting decedent’s former estate plan: Dispositions at variance with the decedent’s intentions, expressed before the document’s execution. If Jane had a previous Will or Trust that treated her children equally, but a new Will or Trust (or Amendment) contradicts the former Will or Trust (or Amendment), this can add to the conclusion that Jane was unduly influenced.
Opportunity to control decedent: Relations existing between the chief beneficiaries and the decedent that afforded the former an opportunity to control the testamentary act. If Jane relied on John for her daily living needs, this can add to the conclusion that Jane was unduly influenced.
Poor mental and physical condition: A testator whose mental and physical conditions are such as to permit a subversion of her freedom of will; and if there is evidence the testator had a weakened state of mind it is easier to demonstrate the pressure from another overcame the testator’s free will.
Sudden negative shift in attitude: Under California law, courts may infer that Jane’s sudden negative shift in attitude toward Jerry and Jack was caused by John’s poisoning Jane’s mind because the court can find no other rational explanation.
Decedent’s advanced age: A Will or Trust creator of advanced age at the time a document is signed adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced.
History of mental deficits: A Will or Trust creator with a history of mental deficits adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced. California Probate code section 811 outlines the likely areas of mental deficits.
History of Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease: A Will or Trust creator with a history of Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced.
Testator under conservatorship: A Will or Trust creator that is under a court ordered conservatorship adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced.
The more of these facts you can establish, the easier it is to prove undue influence directly.
There you have it—a big picture view of how to prove undue influence cases under California law. In future blog posts, I will treat in further detail (i) the burden shift for undue influence cases, and (ii) proving undue influence directly.