How to Challenge a Will Based on Undue Influence

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No one wants to think that their parent or loved one has been taken advantage of in their final days. When a close connection, relative, or caregiver receives more than expected in a Will signed while the grantor was under their care, it could raise questions about the validity of the gift. When faced with the chance that a loved one’s assets will be handed over to the wrong person, you may wonder how difficult challenging a Will based on undue influence is and what your chances are at winning your family’s assets back.

What is a Will Challenge Based on Undue Influence?

A Will challenge based on undue influence is a type of probate litigation in Florida. It seeks to set aside a Will that looks valid on its face based on claims that it was entered through fraud or coercion by someone close to the deceased. Undue influence is the most common of several types of Will challenges addressed by the Florida courts. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most complicated and emotionally challenging, because it requires the deceased’s relatives or beneficiaries to show that their loved one fell prey to fraud, coercion, or manipulation.

Who Can Challenge a Will?

Challenging a Will can’t be done by just anyone. Generally, you must either be entitled to receive something under a current or prior Will (as a beneficiary), or be related to the deceased to file probate litigation against the estate. When an estate is filed, the deceased’s “heirs at law” are often entitled to receive notice that the estate has been opened, and are given an opportunity to contest the Will before the deceased’s assets can be distributed.

It is the personal representative’s duty to investigate the deceased’s heirs at law and send out notices when an estate is opened. However, in cases involving undue influence, the preferred executor or personal representative is often the same person who caused the Will to be rewritten in their favor. This means the deceased’s heirs and loved ones should be on the lookout for warning signs that a Will was signed under undue influence, and if so, be vigilant and investigate whether an estate has been filed, to hold the personal representative to their fiduciary duties, and make sure they don’t miss their opportunity to file a Will challenge based on undue influence.

How to Prove Undue Influence

It can be hard to prove undue influence occurred since by nature Will challenges occur after the grantor has died. This means the person with the best knowledge of when and how the Will was signed is beyond the reach of the courts. To address this, Florida law applies a shifting burden of proof in undue influence cases.

The “burden of proof” is the legal obligation to establish whether something is true or false in order for the case to progress. In most cases, including many other types of Will challenges, the one filing the complaint (the Plaintiff or Petitioner) generally has the burden of proof from beginning to end. However, with challenging a will based on undue influence, the burden of proof shifts between the petitioners who filed the complaint and the preferred beneficiary they name as a defendant.

First, the petitioner must present proof that:

  1. The person accused of undue influence would receive a substantial benefit under the contested Will
  2. There was a confidential relationship between the deceased and the person accused; and
  3. The person accused of undue influence was actively involved in the creation or execution of the Will, overwhelming the grantor’s free will to their own benefit.

At that point, unless there are certain exceptions including that the person accused is the deceased’s spouse, the burden of proof will shift to the person accused of undue influence. It will be up to them to prove the Will was valid and that they did nothing inappropriate to influence the deceased into signing it.

Substantial Benefit

This is the easiest of the three elements to prove, because the substantial benefit should be described in the Will itself. If the gift awarded seems to inappropriately favor the preferred beneficiary over closer relatives, their own siblings, or other obvious choices, or if it confers a greater benefit than a prior will,, the Court may find that the person accused would receive a substantial benefit under the Will sufficient to establish undue influence.

Confidential Relationship

The person benefiting from the Will must be shown to have had an opportunity to exert undue influence on the victim. Usually, this means showing the person benefiting from the Will was close to the deceased, and had confidential access. Undue influence has occurred between:

  • Child and parent
  • Husband and wife
  • Trustee and trust beneficiary
  • Attorney and client
  • Religious leader and worshiper
  • Medical provider and patient
  • Caregiver and patient
  • Guardian and ward

The formal connection between the grantor and beneficiary isn’t as important as the close, trusted relationship between them.

Active Procurement

Just being close to the deceased is not enough. To prove undue influence, you must also show that the person actually committed fraud or coerced the deceased into signing a Will they otherwise wouldn’t have signed. The person exerting undue influence may have taken steps to isolate the deceased from others, or prevented them from communicating with friends and family. They may also have acted as a go-between between the deceased and their attorney in preparing and signing the estate planning documents.

Most often, this means the deceased signed a new Will or Trust naming the person doing the coercion as beneficiary, or causing them to receive a larger share of the estate. However, in some cases, undue influence may also involve transferring property out of the deceased’s name and into the name of the preferred beneficiary using improper means prior to their death. For example, a caregiver could encourage a vulnerable adult to sign a deed listing the caregiver as a joint owner. When that vulnerable adult died, the home would pass directly to the preferred beneficiary. This could require a lawsuit for tortious interference with expected inheritance to restore the property to the deceased’s estate.

Contact Us to Learn About Challenging a Will for Undue Influence

When a beneficiary’s relationship with your loved one raises red flags indicating undue influence, you need to talk to an experienced probate litigation attorney who can help you sort through the evidence and prove your case. At Harrison Estate Law, P.A., our experienced estate and probate team can help you investigate, file, and litigate challenging a will based on undue influence. We will help you be sure your family members are provided for after a loved one’s death. Contact us here or call 352-559-9828 to get help today.