Understanding Undue Influence and How it Occurs
If there is an existing relationship between two people, and one of them uses that as leverage to influence the other’s decisions, then that is considered undue influence.
It’s also typical in such scenarios that the party taking advantage is superior in some way. This could be through emotional or familial ties, higher education, or elevated social status. This is usually the case when someone exerts undue influence on a dying relative.
They use superiority to influence decisions in line with their own best interests, rather than the dying loved one. These are usually not the wishes of the one who’s dying.
If a contractual relationship also exists, and one party suspects undue influence, they may be able to legally void the contract. This is one way that a will can get thrown out of court when a will is contested by a suspicious party.
More detail on Undue Influence
Undue influence can be established if it’s proven that one party holds a more influential say in the relationship.
If the weaker party is vulnerable, either physically, emotionally, or mentally, this is a common occurrence. Relationships that are susceptible to undue influence include:
- those between children and their parents,
- patients and their doctors, and
- lonely elders and their caretakers.
Luckily, there are legal outlines that make clear when one party crosses a line.
If such cases make it to court, it falls on the persecutor to defend their actions. The person considered to be in a position of influence must prove that they were not, in fact, holding this relationship dynamic over the plaintiff’s head like some sort of bargaining chip to get their way.
Alternatively, it might also be the case that the accused is exploiting the other party’s trust. This trust developed through past interactions, and now they’re using it to leverage their own interests.
This is easy to spot if the elderly person changed their spending habits significantly once they began hanging around a caretaker.
A Good Example
To shed more light on how undue influence occurs, let’s consider the case of a therapist, Michael, and his patient, John.
Now John is in therapy because he feels like his peers are leaving him behind. They have all bought their own homes and have invested in some way in the real estate market. Further, he tells his therapist that this makes him feel like he is a failure. His friends are moving ahead in life, and he’s falling deeper into a depression.
His therapist, Michael, is also a real estate investor and has a few units in his complex he’s itching to sell.
Using his position of power, he convinces the patient that purchasing a few units is exactly what the patient needs to do to get ahead.
A Deeper Look At Undue Influence
Now, in this case, the therapist has financial, mental, and emotional advantages over his patient. Had John not told Michael about his insecurities and social conflicts, Michael may never think to sell the property to John.
Further, if John is over 55 and dies suddenly as his contracts on the units are pending, this may fall into the exploitation of the elderly.
You might be wondering, “how is this undue influence if John actually receives the property?”
Well, it’s not that clear cut. John may profit from this purchase in the long run, and Michael’s intentions may have been to help John – just happening to have real estate to sell for mutual benefit.
However, the way the courts will generally look at this is – what seems to be to Michael’s advantage, is to the financial detriment of John. Therefore, one can rightly argue that Michael has undue influence over John and contest John’s decisions in court.
Now in the case of a bad real estate investment, John’s probably going to be out-of-luck. However, when it comes to the probate court system, things get complicated. Namely, because one party is deceased – and was likely on the mental decline well before their actual death.
Undue Influence and Florida Wills
Fact: Florida wills can be contested on the grounds of undue influence.
If the courts find that any wishes in the will were achieved through undue influence, the entirety of the will becomes invalid.
In other words, the court just needs one piece of proof of undue influence. Then they’ll look at the entire document as inauthentic to the deceased’s true wishes. That is also the case for undue influence encompassing Vivos and POD (pay-on-death) designations.
Further, such cases entail shifting the burden of proof in Florida law. This means the accusor needs to bring evidence to support his allegations. Then, the accused must defend himself by offering contradictory evidence.
Do you have an undue influence matter in need of urgent attention?
Reach out to our office for a consultation and legal guidance.