In Undue Influence in Making Bequests: A Forensic Psychiatrist Examines the Evidence, undue influence expert witness Stephen M. Raffle, M.D., writes:
Undue influence when creating a will, codicil to amend a will, trust or other legal instrument, occurs when the conduct of another prevents a testator (or anyone for that matter) from exercising his or her free will. The occurrence of undue influence is established by demonstrating that the testator’s testamentary disposition was caused by undue pressure, argument, or other coercive acts which destroyed the testator’s freedom of choice in the disposition of the assets of his or her estate, and is replaced by the substituted judgment/wishes of another. Litigants may characterize the circumstances as perceived or misperceived exploitation of a vulnerable individual, especially as we see a generation of baby boomers reach ages at risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s, both medical conditions best assessed by a medical doctor. Undue influence may be proven with circumstantial evidence, i.e., without direct evidence. It is necessary to demonstrate by fact that undue influence has occurred. Often the term “undue influence” in a testamentary setting is lumped with the phrases “testamentary capacity” and “competency” to make a Will or Trust. A dispute about testamentary capacity may arise in the same case as undue influence, but from the forensic psychiatrist’s point of view, the issues are different. The making of Wills vs. Trusts have different thresholds of competency and the distinction is important to understand when evaluating if susceptibility to undue influence is considered.
There are various indicia of undue influence. Those indicia include, but are not limited to, the following:
• An unnatural cutting off of any substantial bequest from the natural objects of an individual’s bounty, such as children, e.g., if one child is left the entire body of an estate and another child is provided nothing.
• Disposition of an estate which is at variance with the decedent’s intentions as expressed before and after the execution of the document in question. In other words, the testator expresses that the will (or trust) provides for “X” before the will is signed and again at some later date. However, the bequest proves to contain a different provision entirely. This situation may indicate the testator suffers from dementia and is not the victim of undue influence. A forensic psychiatrist must take into account a wide variety of evidence to form an opinion.
Note: When a testator excludes a natural heir due to a delusion about the heir, the testator is deemed incompetent to execute a will or trust.
• Relations existing between the chief beneficiaries and the decedent were such that one of the beneficiaries was provided an opportunity to control the testamentary act. This commonly occurs when one child manages all of the assets of the testator and otherwise controls the wealth and care of the testator to the exclusion of other children (child).
• The testator was vulnerable to undue influence because he/she suffered from a mental or physical condition which permitted a subversion of his or her free will. This may include a chronic physical condition or mental decline, as mentioned above and below.
I have evaluated cases in which the considerations included the side effects of medication, mentally disabling brain conditions (e.g. a brain tumor), or dementia brought on by the toxic side effects of kidney or liver damage, to name only a few. Conversely, regardless of evidence of physical causes of mental decline, the primary impetus for the testator’s behavior may prove to be caused by the behavior of another person manipulating or exploiting the testator. When assessing undue influence on a deceased testator, the medical training of a forensic psychiatrist, who is a licensed medical doctor, becomes especially relevant as medical records are often the primary evidence available.
• When the chief beneficiary of the testator also is active in procuring the execution of the instrument which provides the bounty, the question must arise whether or not undue influence was exercised.
• If undue influence is alleged against a fiduciary of the testator, the burden of proof shifts to the fiduciary to establish no undue influence occurred.
It is not necessary to demonstrate the existence of mental dysfunction in order to prove undue influence. There may be mental “weakness” (see Estate of Yale), which is probative of undue influence. This “weakness” from whatever cause is nevertheless less debilitating than the mental defect required to establish a lack of testamentary capacity. In Estate of Yale, the court held that a persuasive indicia of undue influence is a physical and mental condition of the testator “such as to permit a subversion of his freewill.” Susceptibility to undue influence may include advanced age, medical deterioration due to a progressive medical mental deterioration, and/or reliance on the beneficiary as a caregiver.
Usually, undue influence is established by circumstantial evidence and, by necessity, inferences. Generally, the existence of undue influence is not investigated until the death of the testator, at which time, of course, the testator no longer is available to testify about acts that influenced him. Rarely is direct testimony available. In the case of David v. Hermann, for example, the court inferred the settlor’s sudden negative shift in attitude toward the older daughter to be caused by the younger daughter falsely “poisoning the settlor’s mind because it [the court] could find no other rational explanation.”
It is generally held that the evidence of cumulative events are taken together in order to support a finding of undue influence; a single event is rarely sufficient as proof. Many types of circumstantial evidence may be produced which when taken cumulatively become more than the sum of their parts.
Not all influence is “undue.” Another close individual such as a spouse may influence the testator to make certain decisions in order to best provide for heirs. The influence becomes “undue” for the reasons given above….
Further comments on this issue are addressed in my discussion of testamentary capacity (which may or may not be linked to undue influence).
Stephen M. Raffle, M.D., Board Certified Forensic Psychiatrist focusing on emotional distress, PTSD, chronic pain, undue influence, testamentary capacity and employment litigation (among others), with over 40 years’ experience offering expert opinion in over 5000 cases, 700+ depositions, and testifying in 150+ trials in Federal, State, Administrative and Military jurisdictions