There are times when we may need to rely on others to help with important decisions or to provide daily care. We put our faith in them and hope they can help us in our time of need. Unfortunately, an untrustworthy person can easily take advantage of the situation and influence your loved one into changing his/her estate plans. As a result, your loved one’s actual intentions for his/her assets are not carried out. The estate planning lawyers at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC can guide people in Nashville, Springfield, and throughout Tennessee who believe that their loved ones may have had undue influence to change their estate. Our firm soundly believes that the true wishes of the person should be carried out and will do what we can to make sure the estate is contested.
What is Undue Influence?
When a vulnerable person is coerced or under the duress of a person to leave his/her assets to that person, this is considered undue influence. It’s usually a person who has a position of control over the vulnerable person’s care or finances – this gives the manipulator the opportunity to influence the estate planning process. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member – it can be an attorney or a caretaker. For example, in her later years, your grandmother had become easily confused at times. A cousin of yours volunteers to be her caregiver, which seems odd since their relationship has always been rocky. After your grandmother has died, you learn that the majority of her estate is going to that cousin. Seems suspicious, right? This scenario may be a case of undue influence.
Some common signs of undue influence include:
Unexpected alterations to the person’s will, trust, Power of Attorney, or other legal matters
A change occurs in the relationship between the person and his/her family or friends
There was a discrepancy between what the person’s previous wishes or intentions were and what was in the final estate plan
There are hidden or secret financial transactions or legal changes
If the court has approved the estate and you feel that undue influence had played a part in its creation, you will need to contest the validity of the will in probate court. In Tennessee, you have two years after the estate’s approval to contest the will.
When it comes to proving undue influence in Tennessee wills and trusts, many will first begin to look at the potential of a confidential relationship between the deceased and the individual in question.
Under Tennessee law, a confidential relationship is “one that gives one person the ability to exercise dominion and control over another.” Further, these confidential relationships are not just of mutual trust, as one may use the guise of, but rather a relationship “where confidence is placed by one in the other and the recipient of that confidence is the dominant personality, with ability, because of that confidence, to influence and exercise dominion and control over the weaker or dominated party.”
These types of relationships should not be confused with a fiduciary relationship that develops from guardianship, attorney/client relationships, or conservators where the relationship is confidential per se because of the legal status of each party.
For a relationship to be deemed confidential, the court requires proof of dominion and control.
Proving Undue Influence
Now comes the hard part – establishing undue influence in your claim. It can be difficult to prove since the person who created the will is no longer there and cannot explain his/her choices. It may come down to witnesses to describe the mental capacity of the person at the time of the estate’s creation. For example, a physician can discuss the deceased’s mental state or a family member explaining the relationship between the deceased and the influencer.
To successfully prove manipulation was involved in the estate planning, you will need to show the following:
Assets and property are distributed to unexpected people. For example, close family members have been written out of the will, yet a nurse receives your loved one’s insurance policy.
There was a confidential relationship between the testator and the influencer, such as a caregiver or an attorney.
The testator was vulnerable in some way, such as he/she was suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.
The influencer had benefited from the estate.
Remember, to establish coercion played a part in the estate planning, you need to show that the person had manipulated the other for that person’s benefit.
How Our Nashville Probate Litigation Attorneys Can Help
Any time you feel an estate is invalid, it’s essential that you speak with an experienced estate litigation attorney to learn what your legal options can be. At Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC, our Middle Tennessee estate lawyers have helped hundreds of clients contest wills in probate court. We understand what you will need for a successful claim and will work hard to make sure the person’s wishes are respected and followed.
If you believe that your loved one may have been a victim of undue influence during the planning of his/her estate, now is the time to act. Contact Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC today to schedule a consultation.