Undue Influence in a Will: What You Need to Know

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Are you concerned about the validity of a loved one’s will, suspecting manipulation behind the scenes? Then understanding ‘undue influence’ in the context of will-making is crucial.

This article unravels the complex dynamics of undue influence, especially for vulnerable individuals such as older adults.

We’ll dive deep into real-life scenarios, legal interpretations and explore how to contest a will on this very ground.

You’ll not only grasp the essence of undue influence but also be equipped with tools to detect, mitigate, and possibly prevent such scenarios.

So, let’s unmask the covert world of undue influence in wills to ensure that the last wishes truly mirror the testator’s intentions.

What is Undue Influence in a Will?

Undue influence on wills is a coercive practice that alters the genuine wishes of a Will-maker or “testator”.

Often, such manipulation can cause a drastic shift in the asset distribution outlined in the will, deviating from the original intentions of the testator.

This shift typically benefits the influencer, who leverages their relationship with the testator to impact the will’s provisions unduly.

Undue influence is particularly prevalent in elder abuse scenarios, where the elderly, often vulnerable and dependent on others for care, become easy targets for manipulation.

This connection underscores the seriousness of undue influence, highlighting it as a form of elder abuse that is legally contestable.

Also read: The Legal Guide to Contesting a Will Due to Dementia

Under What Circumstances Can Undue Influence in a Will Occur?

Detecting undue influence often requires a careful examination of the testator’s mental state, relationships, and any signs of suspicious behavior surrounding the creation or modification of the will.

Presence of a vulnerable testator

Undue influence often occurs when the Will-maker is susceptible, such as in illness or old age. These individuals may be more vulnerable to coercion due to their dependence on others for care and support.

What Situations Make The Will-Maker More Vulnerable To Undue Influence?

Factors like age, health status, cognitive impairment, and emotional distress can amplify the Will-maker’s vulnerability to undue influence.

An isolated Will-maker, dependent on a select few for their basic needs, may find it difficult to resist or even recognise manipulative tactics.

That’s why it’s crucial to maintain open lines of communication and involvement with elderly or vulnerable loved ones, keeping an eye out for any unusual or suspicious activity.

Relationship dynamics

The likelihood of undue influence increases if there’s a relationship where one party significantly relies on or trusts the other. This could include relationships between family members, carers, or close friends.

Manipulative behaviours

Tactics such as threats, lies, blackmail, and excessive flattery can indicate undue influence. Notably, physical violence or force isn’t required to prove coercion.

What Tactics Are Commonly Used To Exert Undue Influence?

Undue influencers often employ subtle, psychologically manipulative tactics to achieve their ends.

These may range from seemingly harmless persuasion to more insidious strategies like blackmail, flattery, or spreading misinformation. Surprisingly, physical violence or threats are not necessary for establishing undue influence.

Even minor pressure applied consistently can be enough to fatigue a vulnerable person into compliance, mainly if they are ill or elderly.

Understanding these tactics can be instrumental in identifying and countering undue influence.

Isolation of the testator

If a Will-maker is isolated from others, they may be more prone to undue influence. Isolation can make them more dependent on a potential influencer, giving that person an opportunity to manipulate the testator’s decisions.

Significant changes to the Will

If a testator makes substantial alterations to their will, especially in favour of a particular individual or to the detriment of others, this can be a sign of possible undue influence.

The testator’s frailty or illness

If the Will-maker is significantly ill or frail, they may be more likely to succumb to undue influence, as they could be more easily manipulated or pressured into making decisions contrary to their true wishes.

How Do Courts Understand Undue Influence in a Will?

Unveiling the nuances of undue influence requires diving into its legal understanding. This includes vital case precedents, how courts interpret coercion, and the line that separates acceptable persuasion from undue influence.

The UK case of Wingrove v Wingrove, which Australian courts use as a legal precedent, emphasised undue influence as a form of coercion. It established that the testator, or the Will-maker, must be in a state where they are coerced into making decisions against their true wishes for it to be considered undue influence.

Courts consider various actions as undue influence, not just physical confinement or violence. Subtle forms of coercion, such as emotional pressure or manipulation, especially for a weak or ill testator, also fall under this category.

A significant distinction is made between acceptable persuasion and undue influence in a legal context. It’s not undue influence if the testator maintains their free will and can independently make decisions.

However, if the testator is coerced or manipulated into actions against their true intentions, it crosses over into the territory of undue influence.

What Are Some Real-Life Examples of Undue Influence in a Will?

Undue influence is common in legal disputes involving wills, trusts, and financial transactions. In Australia, there have been several notable cases that help illustrate the concept.

For instance, in the famous case of “Bridgewater v Leahy” in 1998, a farmer left the bulk of his estate to his nephew, which the rest of the family contested under the suspicion of undue influence. After review, the High Court of Australia determined that the farmer’s decision was influenced due to the nephew’s undue influence over him, and the will was adjusted accordingly.

Another case, “Garrett v Garrett” in 1984, involved a son convincing his mother to sell him a property at a significantly reduced price, purportedly for tax benefits. It was later determined that the son had exerted undue influence to his advantage, and the transaction was set aside.

These cases underline undue influence’s significant role in financial and legal arrangements and the need for vigilance to prevent such manipulations.

How Can You Contest a Will on the Grounds of Undue Influence in Australia?

Let’s delve into the intricacies of contesting a will based on undue influence, shedding light on the legal considerations and steps involved in pursuing a just resolution.

Process for Contesting Undue Influence in a Will in Court

  1. Notify the executor: The first step is to get your wills lawyer to notify the executor of the will that you intend to challenge the will on the grounds of undue influence.
  2. Prepare an Application: Gather all necessary documents and prepare an affidavit outlining the basis of your claim of undue influence.
  3. Legal Proceedings: Once all preliminary processes are done, you’ll have to launch legal proceedings in a court with jurisdiction over probate matters.

Also read: Can a Will Be Contested After Probate?

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Conditions to Prove Undue Influence in a Will

  • Relationship of Trust and Confidence: The person alleging undue influence must demonstrate that the testator was in a relationship of trust and confidence with the alleged influencer.
  • Actions Contrary to Free Will: It must be shown that the testator’s actions were not their free and independent decisions but were significantly impacted by undue influence.
  • Beneficial Outcomes to the Influencer: The will must significantly favour the person alleged to have exerted undue influence.

Difficulty in Proving Undue Influence

  • Absence of Direct Evidence: It’s often difficult to provide direct evidence of undue influence since these situations often occur privately.
  • The Burden of Proof: The burden of proving undue influence lies with the person alleging it, which can be a high standard.
  • Subjectivity: What might seem as undue influence to one person may appear as genuine affection and concern to another, leading to varying interpretations of the same circumstances.

Are you concerned about an undue influence on the will of your loved ones?

At Walker Pender, we’re committed to respecting your rights and wishes.

Contact us today for a confidential consultation. Let’s safeguard your legacy together. Your peace of mind is our priority.

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