Understanding and Proving Undue Influence In Inheritance Cases

Parents spend their lives taking care of their children, and when they age, they depend on their children to take care of them. However, sometimes a child or relative will take advantage of an elderly family member’s condition or circumstances to their own benefit. Often, these situations don’t come to light until after the family member in question passes away and their loved ones notice, much to their surprise, suspicious changes to their will or estate plan.

In Tennessee, this situation is called “undue influence.”

What is Undue Influence?

Undue influence is, put simply, when one person uses power or authority over another to coerce them into making decisions that favor the first person. In the words of the American Bar Association, undue influence’s definition is when one person’s will is substituted for another’s desires.

In estate law, undue influence occurs when an elderly person is taken advantage of so that they are coerced into favoring the influencer in devising wills, trusts, and other plans for the distribution of their assets after death.

Examples of Undue Influence in Families

Undue influence most commonly happens when a caretaker takes advantage of an elderly person’s vulnerable state to secure a favorable position in their estate planning, and it is not uncommon for those caretakers to be members of the victim’s family.

Undue influence by family members can take many forms, and it can be subtle or overt. Let’s posit a few hypothetical undue influence examples in which an elderly loved one may be taken advantage of by a beneficiary who does not have their best interests at heart:

  • You have a grandmother who relies heavily on your aunt for caregiving and companionship in her old age. Your aunt pressures your grandmother into changing her will to leave the bulk of her estate to her in exchange for further care while isolating her from her other children and grandchildren to keep her dependent.
  • Your older brother, who moved out of state long ago, convinces your aging mother to move closer to him, isolating her from the rest of her family as well as her friends. He takes advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability to pressure her to leave her entire estate to him.
  • Your grandmother has significant health issues and depends heavily on your father for her daily care. He threatens to stop providing care and put her in a nursing home if she does not change her will to leave her assets entirely to him.
  • A distant nephew of yours ingratiates himself with your mother and showers her with attention in order to charm her into rewarding his “loyalty” with a significant portion of her estate once she passes.
  • Your elderly mother intends to divide her inheritance equally among all of her children, even though you have been estranged from your family for quite some time. Your other siblings, believing they deserve your share of the inheritance, engage in a prolonged campaign of pressure to guilt, manipulate, and persuade her into rewriting her will to be more “fair.”

These are only hypothetical examples, but they highlight some of the common tactics used by influencers against those who are unduly influenced, namely:

  • Development of extreme dependency
  • Threats of withholding care
  • Isolation from other family members or friends
  • Guilt and emotional manipulation

Family members with significant physical or mental health issues are most at risk of being unduly influenced since they are the most in need of care and thus the most vulnerable to undue influence tactics.

What does undue influence by family members look like?

Some warning signs of undue influence of a parent by siblings include:

  • An absentee sibling suddenly becoming interested in the health of your parents
  • Your parents’ will being drawn up by a lawyer with personal connections to a sibling
  • Suspicious changes in the distribution of your parents’ assets
  • Signs of elder abuse
  • A sibling who acts as caretaker is speaking for your parents

Exploring the High Burden of Proof for Undue Influence

Proving that a family member was unduly influenced by a beneficiary is challenging. It’s important to note that warning signs that undue influence may be occurring do not always prove beyond a reasonable doubt that undue influence is occurring. For example, it may seem as though an elderly parent is being unduly influenced, but they have in fact received independent legal advice.

The problem is that undue influence cases often involve a great deal of circumstantial evidence, which is not enough on its own to prove that a loved one is being unduly influenced in a court of law.

Directly proving that coercion or manipulation occurred rests first on proving that a beneficiary had and misused a confidential relationship with a loved one. There is no statute to define undue influence under Tennessee law; however, case law sets the standard for recognizing and proving undue influence. In Tennessee, an individual can only be unduly influenced by a beneficiary with a confidential relationship.

Forms of evidence needed to prove that a loved one was pressured, manipulated, or coerced into altering their estate plan include:

  • Statements from witnesses who were present when a will was created or modified, attesting to the testator’s state of mind or behavior
  • Medical records and expert testimony that can establish medical conditions that would make them vulnerable to undue influence
  • Evidence that a testator was isolated from family members, friends, or independent legal counsel who might have provided alternative guidance or support other than the alleged influencer
  • Any written or recorded correspondences that suggest pressure, manipulation, or coercion
  • Examples of inconsistent changes to a will or estate plan that cannot be explained by the testator’s normal intentions or circumstances
  • Demonstrations of motives an alleged influencer may have to exert undue influence
  • Character witnesses for both testator and alleged influencer

Proving Undue Influence with MHPS Law

Alleging undue influence in court is difficult, but if you believe that a loved one has been abused and taken advantage of by a beneficiary in exchange for a more favorable inheritance, there are options available to you. You can contest their will, for example, though that is easier said than done.

Estate litigation is difficult, but when you have serious concerns that a recently departed loved one’s last wishes have gone unfulfilled due to an undue influencer, it’s worth undergoing. At MHPS Law, our estate litigation attorneys provide empathy, compassion, and extensive experience with undue influence cases to help you make sense of your situation.

We can help you:

  • Assess signs of potential undue influence
  • Determine the likelihood that a loved one has been unduly influenced
  • Gather evidence to support your case
  • Navigate probate court to seek a fair resolution

We’re here to help you make things right. Contact us today to discuss your options.

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You don’t have to face a legal case alone. Get the support and guidance you need to make informed decisions and navigate the complexities of the law. Reach out today, and let’s take the first step together.