Published on:

Can “Undue Influence” Lead to a Conservatorship?

A conservatorship is a legal last resort for someone who is unable to properly provide for his or her personal needs or manage his or her finances. With proper estate planning, a person can anticipate such contingencies by signing a power of attorney or even creating a trust. Still, there may be cases in which a court determines such documents are invalid due to a person’s deteriorated mental state or the undue influence of others.

Court Rejects Stepdaughter’s Petition for Conservatorship Over 101-Year-Old Stepfather

A recent case from here in San Diego illustrates the problems that can arise when dealing with elderly relatives and estate planning. This case is just an example and should not be viewed as a definitive statement of California law on estate planning or conservatorships.

At the center of this case is a 101-year-old man and his stepdaughter. Three years ago, the man suffered a fall in his bathroom and hit his head on the floor. A few months later, doctors discovered the fall caused blood pooling in the man’s brain, and further neurological testing revealed he had “severe mental deficiencies.” Another doctor later diagnosed the man with dementia.

The stepdaughter later moved her stepfather to an assisted living facility. He objected and told his two nieces that he “wanted to go home.” One of the nieces later approached her uncle with a new power of attorney, replacing the stepdaughter with her as his agent to make healthcare decisions for him.

A short time later, medical professionals at the assisted living facility determined the man was capable of returning home. The stepdaughter objected and instead asked a probate judge to establish a conservatorship for her stepfather, with her serving as conservator.

The probate court rejected the stepdaughter’s petition. On October 20 of this year, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld that decision. Although the probate court determined the nieces had exercised “undue influence” over their uncle with respect to the revised power of attorney, the judge also found that at the time of the hearing on the stepdaughter’s conservatorship petition, the stepfather’s mental condition had improved to the point where he was capable of making his own decisions.

As the Fourth District explained, the probate court’s findings were not in conflict. Just because a person has fallen victim to undue influence in the past, that does not conclusively establish that he is presently unable to provide for his own needs—and is therefore in need of a conservatorship. Here, the nieces’ undue influence took place approximately nine months before the probate judge held the conservatorship hearing – and in any event, the appeals court said the prior incapacity had “no bearing” on whether the stepfather could actually live on his own.

Need Assistance From a California Estate Planning Attorney?

It is often the case that relatives disagree over the proper way to care for an aging family member. In some cases this disagreement leads to nasty (and costly) litigation. Proper estate planning beforehand can help preempt such disputes. If you need advice on preparing a power of attorney, trust, or any related document from an experienced San Diego estate planning lawyer, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today.

Contact Information