Undue Influence in Florida Estate Planning
Many individuals carefully plan and construct a thorough estate plan that dictates how their assets and estate will be handled and distributed after their death. Unfortunately, these same individuals can become vulnerable to bad-actors who take advantage of an ill or aged person in order to manipulate a benefit to themselves into the last will and testament.
Improper manipulation of this kind is recognized under Florida law as “undue influence.” Claims of undue influence remain one of the primary reasons why someone might choose to contest the provisions in a trust or last will and testament.
While claims of undue influence are common, it is still complicated to prove. Even if a person feels, deep in their gut, that something is wrong with the terms of the estate plan and a beneficiary did exert undue influence, a feeling is not enough. To be successful in their claim a person must provide strong evidence that undue influence was a factor and that the undue influence impacted asset distribution.
This article is meant to introduce readers to the basic principles involved in an undue influence case. For nuanced advice specific to your circumstances, contact one of the esteemed wills and probate attorneys at Suncoast Civil Law.
What is “Undue Influence”
While this topic is nuanced, generally speaking “undue influence” will be found in cases where it is shown that one party has improperly influenced another party and took advantage in order to retain a benefit. One common place where undue influence can occur is in wills and trusts. Older adults with debilitating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or dementia might be particularly vulnerable. Someone might exercise undue influence by adding themselves as a beneficiary to estate planning documents, increasing their own share, or removing/diminishing another beneficiary’s share.
How is Undue Influence Proven?
Proving that undue influence occurred may be challenging. Those individuals who might be in a position to exert undue influence are often people who are very close to the deceased. Accordingly, it may be natural and entirely feasible that the deceased CHOSE to increase that person’s inheritance share. It might be difficult to pinpoint or probe that the relationship ever turned to exploitation.
Because of the difficulty in this task, Florida case law has developed to create factors that courts consider when evaluating whether a case shows evidence of undue influence. When bringing a claim, petitioners should expect the court to consider:
- Was the accused party present when the document in question was finalized?
- Did the accused recommend the attorney that prepared the document?
- Was the accused aware of the contents and terms of the document in question prior to its finalization?
- Did the accused assist in securing witnesses for the document signing?
- Did the accused retain/keep the finalized document?
Who Can Bring Charges of Undue Influence?
Only a person with legal standing can bring charges of undue influence. Legal standing manifests when a person has an “interest” in the estate. This typically means that you are a beneficiary, but this is not the only instance where a person might have the requisite interest. If you are unsure if you have standing to bring an undue influence claim, an experienced probate litigation attorney can help advise you on your rights.
Contact Suncoast Civil Law
An experienced Sarasota probate litigation lawyer at Suncoast Civil Law can review the facts of your case and advise you on your rights. Contact our office today to see how our legal team can help you.