Planning a will is a sensitive and important moment in the lives of many individuals and families. Through estate planning, important wishes are solidified in writing including monetary disbursements, property decisions, and even financial plans for dependent and disabled family members.
However, when our loved ones age, the risk of their wishes getting manipulated increases over time. In the court system, this manipulation is known as undue influence. While the signs of undue influence can be subtle, they often show in pairs and groups. This means that if you know what to look for, you can determine whether undue influence exists and help end it before it begins.
Sign 1: Isolation
While difficult to spot at first, isolation is often an early sign that another individual is attempting to manipulate the testator (the person’s whose will is in jeopardy) into changing the provisions of their estate plan. This is because isolation creates an environment where other forms of manipulation are not only more effective, but are less noticeable overall.
Signs of isolation include a family member who was once active and outgoing no longer participating in the same activities. More deliberate signs of isolation can include the influencing party not allowing your family member to be seen alone, speak on the phone, or participate in activities while unmonitored by the individual attempting to influence them.
The logic behind these actions is that through suppression and isolation, the testator will not only be unable to seek help, but others will be unable to see the extent of the manipulation taking place behind closed doors.
Sign 2: Reliance on the Influencer
Going hand in hand with isolation, a new or unusual reliance on the influencer can be an example of undue influence in families and care settings alike. This sign can be particularly troublesome to spot as there are many variables that go into determining whether this is a warning sign of undue influence or the result of a natural decline in the testator’s mental capacity.
Generally, signs of excessive reliance include testators who were originally independent suddenly revoking all control of their finances. This can be accompanied by an overbearing presence of a particular friend, family member, or caregiver in the testator’s life.
In cases where elder abuse is also suspected, this combination can become incredibly severe. Read more about some of the signs of elder abuse here.
Sign 3: Playing Favorites and “Unnatural Gifts”
The final sign of undue influence usually results as a successful culmination of other efforts to gain influence, status, and control over a testator’s financial plans. The most common sign that an individual has been able to exert undue influence is that there is a paper trail pointing to financial favoritism of certain family and friends through the creation of “unnatural gifts.”
Unnatural gifts are those which go against logic. For instance, a will that reflects a large portion, or even all, of an individual’s assets going to a single person. Similarly, unnatural gifts can include suspicious joint accounts and large financial transfers that destabilize the financial security of the testator.
Suspecting Undue Influence
In Arizona, and in elder law more broadly, proving undue influence for the person challenging a will can be incredibly difficult. As such, the best way to avoid undue influence, probate litigation, and estate disputes in the first place is by working with an experienced attorney from the start.
As an estate planning attorney, I can help give you legal advice on how to create a will and how to look for signs of undue influence. If you would like to discuss your options and begin your estate planning process, please reach out to me.