Challenging a California will or trust based on undue influence


Under California law, undue influence can be grounds to challenge the validity of a will or trust. A 2014 case from the California Court of Appeals illustrates the courts' power to void estate planning documents procured by undue influence. The case involved the third wife of an elderly multimillionaire. Before he died, the husband made multiple amendments to his trust, progressively giving more assets to the wife and disinheriting his two older children from a previous marriage. The husband and wife then jointly executed a new family trust which, among other things, designated all his assets as community property and gave the wife a life interest in his estate.

When the man died, his children challenged the trust and the probate court ruled it invalid. The Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court's decision, noting there was evidence the decedent was fearful of his spouse and unduly susceptible to her wishes. The court also found evidence the wife had overcome decedent's free will: the new trust gave the wife the right to disinherit his youngest child from a previous marriage, whom he adored, and to leave the residue of the estate to her own two children, one of whom he disliked intensely.

Not all influence is undue or improper. People influence each other in myriad ways every day. Undue influence occurs when a line is crossed and a vulnerable person is pressured into doing something they would not otherwise have done. California's probate code defines undue influence as the use of excessive persuasion upon a person in order to get them to do something, or refrain from doing something. It requires a showing that the victim's free will was overcome, resulting in inequity.

Family members who believe a loved one is a victim of undue influence may benefit from consulting an experienced probate and estate planning attorney. When a decedent's heirs or family members believe a will or trust was executed due to undue influence, they have the right to seek relief in court.

Source: Lintz v. Lintz, 222 Cal.App.4th 1346 (2014)

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