What to Know About Undue Influence in California

  • Posted on: Mar 15 2023
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The decision of whom to leave things to in your will and how to set up your estate planning documents is one of great importance. Sadly, sometimes when someone is in a vulnerable state they can be excessively persuaded to act or refrain from acting in a certain manner by someone who overtakes their free will. California law defines this as undue influence. Undue influence occurs when a senior is at risk due to certain factors such as dependence, isolation, or cognitive decline. 

While a stranger may be guilty of undue influence, most of the time it is perpetrated by a family member or close loved one. Undue influence is often found when this person isolates the victim from his or her loved ones and prevents them from speaking with them or when this person puts a lot of pressure on the victim regarding his or her financial decisions. 

Undue Influence Factors

Although undue influence can’t usually be defined by one factor, there are a variety of factors, that when looked at together, can rise to the level of such an offense. Some of these factors include:

  • The apparent authority of the suspect
    • The suspect has taken a position of power or trust over the victim and used it to their own benefit
  • The actions of the suspect
    • The suspect isolates the victim from their family and friends
    • The suspect controls the victim’s finances
    • The suspect initiates changes to the victim’s personal or property rights
    • The suspect demands certain things of the victim
  • The vulnerability of the victim
    • Mental impairment
    • Physical impairment
    • Emotional distress
    • Dependence on the suspect
    • Isolation of the victim
  • The result of the suspect’s actions
    • Actions/changes are not in the victim’s best interest
      • Changes may include economic consequences, changes to the terms of a testamentary instrument, or changes to a prior pattern of the victim’s
    • The suspect now has an unfair advantage as a result of the victim’s actions

Red Flags of Undue Influence

One of the best ways to combat or prevent undue influence is by paying attention to certain red flags. These common red flags may be indicative of undue influence:

  • The victim is isolated from family and friends and cannot communicate with them;
  • The victim has made financial gifts to people who he or she just met;
  • Giving people the victim just met certain privileges (e.g., making them joint owner on financial accounts or a financial power of attorney);
  • An advisor giving the victim estate planning advice that is not in their best interest but in the interest of themselves;
  • The suspect being overly involved in the victim’s estate plan despite only recently meeting;
  • Great changes or differences between prior estate plans and a new one (that usually prove beneficial to the suspect; and/or
  • Withholding documents from family members.

One of the difficulties in combating undue influence is even knowing that it is occurring since it generally happens in private, behind closed doors. For this reason, many people are unaware of undue influence until after their loved one has died and their estate plan is being carried out. This is especially true when the victim lives far away from their family. 

Not All Influence is Undue Influence

It’s important to differentiate that there is a big difference between changes to a loved one’s estate plan that you don’t like and changes that are caused by undue influence. Influence itself is not enough to violate the law. So long as they aren’t incapacitated, everyone has the right to make their own decisions regardless of whether or not you agree with them. Put simply, undue influence occurs when a person in power manipulates someone who is vulnerable in such a way that that person can no longer exercise their own free will.

The Law Offices of Brian L. Fox, APLC Help those Who are Dealing with Undue Influence

If you believe that your loved one has been the victim of undue influence, it’s in your best interest to consult with a qualified California estate-planning attorney who can help as soon as possible. 
At the Law Offices of Brian L. Fox, APLC, we know how important it is to protect those whom you love so much. We will help you to fight against anyone who tries to exert undue influence against your loved one. To learn more or to schedule a free consultation, contact us today!

Posted in: Estate Planning