What is Undue Influence?

What is Undue Influence?

When someone creates a last will and testament, it must reflect their true wishes. Unfortunately, there can sometimes be dishonest family members or other unscrupulous individuals who might manipulate the person executing the will (the “testator”) in order to obtain a greater share of the estate. This wrongful wielding of power and abusive behavior can result in a vulnerable testator drawing up their will in a way that they would not have otherwise, had the “undue influence” not occurred. Critically, if undue influence is proven in probate court, the entire will may be rendered invalid.

What is the Definition of Undue Influence?

In Illinois, anyone with a direct pecuniary interest in the estate may contest a will within six months after it has been admitted to probate if they believe the testator was the victim of undue influence. However, there is no precise definition of “undue influence” applied by Illinois probate courts. When a will is contested on such grounds, a court would evaluate the specific facts of the case to determine whether undue influence was used at the time the instrument was drafted.

There are typically two ways undue influence can be established: through a beneficiary’s specific actions or conduct, or by demonstrating the existence of a fiduciary relationship. In situations where the mental capacity of the testator was diminished, less evidence might be needed to prove undue influence.

What Types of Conduct Constitute Undue Influence?

Many people believe that any form of meddling which results in someone changing the terms of their will constitutes undue influence. But this is not correct — a person may decide to modify or revoke their will at any time for a variety of reasons. Significantly, undue influence requires more than merely making suggestions to a loved one about who to include in their will or asking to be bequeathed certain property. Such grounds to challenge a will arise when a dominant party takes advantage of a testator and prevents them from exercising their own free will in the disposition of their estate.

Importantly, various types of conduct may constitute undue influence, and a showing of coercion or physical duress is not necessary. In fact, courts recognize that the manner in which power or control is exerted over a testator can be much more subtle. Actions that give rise to undue influence can range from flattery, to harassment, emotional blackmail, instilling fear, or withholding affection.

Undue Influence Based on a Fiduciary Duty as a Matter of Law

If the party challenging the will can establish the existence of a fiduciary relationship between the person who executed the will and the alleged influencer, there is a rebuttable presumption of undue influence. This shifts the legal burden back to the person who benefited under the will to demonstrate they did not assert any power over the testator. But first, the party claiming undue influence must prove each of the following four elements:

  1. There was a fiduciary relationship between the testator and a substantial beneficiary who was the dominant party;
  2. The testator of the will had placed their trust and confidence in the beneficiary;
  3. The beneficiary took part in preparing or procuring the will;
  4. The beneficiary received a substantial benefit under the terms of the will, compared with those who had equal claims.

Certain types of relationships automatically qualify as fiduciary relationships as a matter of law. These can include the relationship between an attorney and client, a guardian and ward, as well as that of a trustee and beneficiary. In addition, these relationships can also be formed between an individual and the person they named as their financial power of attorney.

Undue Influence Based on Fiduciary Duty as a Matter of Fact

A fiduciary relationship isn’t always formal in nature or created by a written document. They can also exist as a matter of fact, such as in cases involving an ailing testator and a caregiver. Absent a legal relationship, a court would examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the relationship to determine whether there was a fiduciary relationship between the parties.

Factors a jury would consider in these situations can include the level of trust the testator placed in the individual, the testator’s reliance on the dominant party, and the degree of kinship. A jury would also look to the disparity in age, mental condition, health, education, and business sophistication between the parties.

Specifically, there is a rebuttable presumption under the Illinois Probate Act that a property transfer of more than $20,000 to a “caregiver” is void. In other words, if a will is challenged on these grounds, a caregiver would have to prove to the court by clear and convincing evidence that they did not exert undue influence. Notably, family members of the testator are excluded from the definition of “caregiver” under the statute.

Contact an Experienced Illinois Trusts and Estates Attorney

Undue influence is just one cause of action that can be raised to contest a will in Illinois. A will may also be invalidated due to lack of testamentary capacity, improper execution, revocation, and fraud. If you suspect that your loved one’s will does not accurately reflect their intentions, it’s best to consult with a knowledgeable attorney who handles estate litigation matters to discuss your options.

Located in Rolling Meadows, Illinois and serving clients throughout the Northwest suburbs and Chicago area, Hess Law Firm is committed to fighting for the rights of clients in a wide range of estate issues and ensuring their interests are protected. Call (847) 367-6990 or email info@hesslawfirm.com today to schedule an appointment.

Categories: Estate Planning