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The doctrine of undue influence in California

In least in this law office's experience, undue influence is perhaps the most common claim made in a probate dispute over the terms of a will. However, residents of Fresno County, California, especially those who are involved in or are unfortunately having to contemplate probate litigation, may need a better understanding of what exactly "undue influence" entails.

For one, someone can be subject to undue influence when making a will yet still have the mental ability to actually sign a valid will. In fact, a will could appear to in all respects be valid in an undue influence case, as undue influence often happens behind the scenes.

Whether undue influence occurs depends heavily on the individual facts and circumstances of a person's situation, but there are still some principles one can keep in mind. For one, elderly people obviously have friends and relatives whom they trust, and they may trust some more than others.

The mere fact that someone listens to, say, their daughter more than they do their son does not mean the daughter has unduly influenced anyone. Moreover, a person has the right to make a will that is not fair in the sense of being absolutely equal. The fact one sibling is getting more than the other does not, standing alone, create an inference of undue influence.

A court hearing an undue influence case is going to look to a number of factors. For one, the court will consider exactly how capable a person really was of making independent decisions at the time he or she wrote up his or her will, even if the person legally was capable of making such a will.

For two, the court will be asking about the role of the alleged perpetrator in the person's life. If the alleged perpetrator has a lot of ability to control or persuade the person and did in fact use those opportunities, then it raises a concern about undue influence.

Finally, the court will ask about the circumstances of the estate plan itself. Not only will the court ask whether the changes make sense in light of the situation, it will also ask whether the alleged victim's behavior is consistent with prior conduct. Evidence that the estate plan was changed in a rushed or secretive fashion will also be considered.

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