The concept of “undue influence” can be used to invalidate a Will or Trust. What is undue influence? According to the California legislature “undue influence” is the taking of an unfair advantage of another’s weakness of mind. In a word: coercion. For example, a caretaker befriends an elderly person and takes over the elder’s financial affairs, such as writing checks, paying bills, etc. Even though the elderly person already has a Will and Trust leaving all of her property equally to her two children, the caretaker takes advantage of his position of trust and convinces the elderly person to create a Will and Trust leaving everything to the caretaker and disinheriting the children. The Will and Trust that the elderly person creates under these circumstances does not reflect the elder’s intent (because she wanted her assets to pass to her children), rather it reflects the intent of the caretaker. The children can then sue after the elderly person’s death and challenge the validity of the Will and Trust based on Undue Influence of the caretaker.
Generally, the objectors of a Will or Trust (such as the children in the above example) have the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the caretaker exercised undue influence over the decedent. But that burden of proof can shift to the caretaker if certain facts are present. Once shifted, the caretaker then has to prove that he did NOT unduly influence the elderly person, and he must likely prove this by clear and convincing evidence (which is a higher standard). This is nearly impossible for the caretaker to prove because he must prove a negative—that undue influence was not present—a hard task to accomplish. Therefore, shifting the burden is critical and nearly always fatal once accomplished.
To shift the burden of proof to caretaker, the children must prove the following three elements:
- Caretaker and Mom had a confidential relationship;
- Caretaker participated in the creation of the changed Trust and Will; and
- Caretaker unduly profited from the changed Trust and Will.
Under the above example, the burden would likely shift to the caretaker because there was a confidential relationship (since Mom was dependent on the caretaker for support and maintenance), we may have facts that he participated in the Will creation (we did not say that above, but it is a common occurrence), and the caretaker unduly profited by receiving all of the estate.
What’s the likely outcome? More than likely, with the proper presentation at trial, the Probate Court will invalidate Mom’s Will and Trust and restore children’s inheritance.