What is Considered Undue Influence?
When someone influences someone’s decision to change their will or leave their assets to them that may be considered undue influence. You will often hear about undue influence when a celebrity dies and leaves all or a vast amount of their large estate to a new spouse, especially one much younger, or a housekeeper, butler, caretaker, or even a family member omitting their other heirs and family members from inheriting under their will.
This could mean that the person’s children do not inherit any of their assets. While a person is free to leave their assets to whomever they want, if an heir or beneficiary can prove that the person who benefits the most from the inheritance had undue influence over the will or trust maker and that the person was unduly influenced to make the change, then the bequest may be determined by the New York Surrogate’s Court to be invalid and the entire will may be thrown out.
When a person who benefits under the change in the will or trust is considered a fiduciary such as an attorney or financial advisor, that fiduciary has a greater duty of agency and fiduciary responsibility. In this regard, the burden of proof would be upon the fiduciary to establish that they did not have any undue influence over the decedent’s decision and that the decedent made the choice of free will should an heir or beneficiary contest the matter.
While it is not unreasonable for a spouse to leave all or substantially all of their assets to a surviving spouse, if that spouse is a new spouse or considerably younger than the person making the bequest, it may be construed by other heirs and family members that the person benefiting had undue influence over their loved one. For instance, a child from a previous marriage may be unhappy that they are not getting a larger inheritance or any inheritance and contest the will. However, just because the child does not like the parent’s choice of leaving the assets to the new wife, this does not mean that the child automatically will win the will contest. The child would have to establish evidence that the new wife had undue influence over their parent.
When in doubt about making such a substantial change to your will, it is a good idea to discuss the change first with your other heirs and beneficiaries who will be affected to make sure they understand your intentions. Otherwise, if there is any doubt after you pass away or they do not like or agree with your choice, they may decide to contest your will. To reduce the chance of a will contest, many people consult with a New York probate and estate attorney to make sure that their intentions are reflected correctly and that their will is considered valid under New York law.