An estate plan or last will is supposed to be a way for someone to leave a lasting legacy that reflects their values in life and the relationships or causes they cherished the most. Unfortunately, quite a few people look at an estate as something they have an entitlement to, not a gift or act of kindness and love on the part of their deceased family member.
That sense of entitlement could mean that members of your family, including your stepparent or your siblings, could intentionally try to influence your parent during the later years of their life to change the estate plan in a way that will benefit that individual above other members in the family.
If you suspect that someone in your family inappropriately pressured a dying loved one to alter their last will, you may be able to ask the courts to intervene and adjust the last will or estate plan on the grounds of undue influence.
How does undue influence occur?
An older or vulnerable individual can experience undue influence when someone they trust or rely upon begins to pressure them about certain issues. In some cases, an individual who wants to exert undue influence on an estate plan will take a subtle approach, trying to plant an idea in the head of the testator.
They may begin implying that other family members don’t care for the testator as much as they do. They could go so far as to deny other people access via telephone calls or personal visits, all the while telling your ailing loved one that the rest of the family has abandoned them. Feeling betrayed and miserable, the testator may take those accusations to heart and exclude the rest of the family from their will or at least skew the terms of their escape plan in favor of the individual manipulating them.
Other people attempting to exert undue influence are not nearly so subtle. It is also unfortunately common for someone serving as a caregiver, including spouses, children or even paid professionals, to use their position of authority to force someone to change their will through threats or coercion. If a vulnerable older adult relies on someone else for all of their basic needs, they may feel they have no choice but to comply with that person’s demands regarding their estate.
What happens in cases of proven undue influence?
You will have to demonstrate to the courts that there is a reason to believe a caregiver or family member intentionally influenced the terms of the last will. Text messages and emails refusing to let you see your loved one, as well as your own documentation of various family circumstances, can help substantiate your claims of intentional alienation and influence to the courts.
If the courts side with you and agree that it is clearly a case of undue influence, you can expect them to make changes to the last will or estate plan. In some cases, the courts may simply revert the last will to a previous version that more fairly and evenly divided assets among surviving family members and dependents. Other times, if there isn’t a previous will on record, the courts may instead choose to discard the document entirely and approach the estate as though the testator died intestate, without a will.