People generally create a last will, trust or estate plan to protect their last wishes and provide for their loved ones and causes after death. Sometimes, however, the last will or estate plan ends up looking much different from what everyone in the family or the presumptive heirs expect. When that happens, there is a good chance the will will get contested and end up in New York probate court.
When a will goes to the probate courts for approval, anyone in the family or considered an heir can contest the content of the last will. However, in order to do so, that person must have valid grounds for the contestation . Some of the more common arguments include lack of mental capacity, lack of validity, duress, fraud and undue influence. Of these issues, undue influence is likely one of the most common, but also most difficult to prove.
What is undue influence?
Undue influence , at its most basic, is when a person other than the testator has direct influence over the terms of a last will or estate. Many times, this influence coincides with decreased mental faculties in an individual. An aging or ailing person is more susceptible to manipulation and attempts at control than those in peak physical and mental health.
One or more individuals could begin to pressure someone or slowly engage in activities like gaslighting, intended to make that person question his or her own perceptions of reality. For example, a child of the testator could slowly, over many months, convince an ailing parent that a sibling was abusive or abandoned his or her parent, even if it isn’t true. This could result in changes to a last will or estate plan that reduce or eliminate the inheritance of the other sibling.
Proving undue influence is hard but not impossible
One of the most difficult things about proving undue influence is finding evidence to support the claim. Often, the influencing episodes take place in private, without any witnesses. You will want to see if there is any proof available to you. Nurses, home health aides and other medical professionals may have overheard something that you could use as evidence. There could also be a digital record if your deceased loved one exchanged emails or text messages with the person who exerted undue influence.
Even very personal records, like a diary or journal kept by the deceased could help prove your point. Seeking witnesses and other documentation of influence can help your case. Similarly, evidence about earlier decisions regarding the last will or estate plan could support your claim that later changes were the result of undue influence. Evidence, documentation and witnesses can all help you build a case when contesting a last will or estate plan because you believe someone else influenced it.