What is “undue influence” in a will contest? | Sykes Elder Law

Certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation under authorization of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation under authorization of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

A will can be contested on various grounds – forgery, fraud, or incapacity of the signer, for instance.

The most common basis for a will contest, though, is known as “undue influence” – that is, an allegation that a “testator” (person who signed the will) of weakened intellect was improperly persuaded to leave money or property to somebody.

To establish a case of undue influence in Pennsylvania, the law requires you to show that a person in a confidential relationship to the testator received a substantial benefit from a testator of weakened intellect. In fact, it is necessary to establish grounds for all three elements – confidential relationship, substantial benefit, and weakened intellect – in order for a will contest to proceed.

Case law defines these elements in detail. In brief they have the following meanings:

Confidential relationship – a position of trust close to the testator, such as a caregiver or agent under a power of attorney. In the words of one appellate court, “it has been said that such a relationship is not confined to a particular association of parties, but exists whenever one occupies toward another such a position of advisor or counselor as reasonably to inspire confidence that he will act in good faith for the other’s interest.” Estate of Keiper, 308 Pa. Super. 82, 86, 454 A.2d 31, 33 (1982).

Substantial benefit – fairly self-explanatory, it generally has been described in case law as “an appreciable benefit” or “a large or considerable benefit,” but there is no hard and fast rule.

Weakened intellect – generally means a weakened physical or mental condition, but does not have to mean the testator lacked the capacity to make a will. One court described a weakened intellect as a mind which “is inferior to normal minds in reasoning power, factual knowledge, freedom of thought and decision, and other characteristics of a fully competent mentality.” Paolini Will, 13 Fiduc. Rep. 2d 185 (O.C. Montg. 1993).

When a person close to the testator is shown to have gained a substantial benefit from a person of weakened intellect, the burden of proof shifts to the benefited person to show that he or she did not exercise undue influence over the testator.

A judge, possibly with an advisory jury, makes the final determination as to whether undue influence occurred.

Related Posts

Avoid a Family Fight Over Your Estate

Avoid a Family Fight Over Your Estate

Most people think of their estate plans as expressions of their legacy to loved ones. The last thing they want to leave is family conflict.  The first step in avoiding a family fight over your estate should be obvious, but it bears repeating: have a clear and...

Share This