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How Elder Abuse and Undue Influence Affect California Estate Planning

Elder abuse remains a major problem in California estate planning. Relatives, caregivers, and other parties often exploit their relationship with someone who is ill or dying in order to obtain an inheritance from their estate. Such undue influence is against the law, and an interested party may ask a probate court to nullify any provision in a will or trust that benefits the abuser.

Court Holds Disclaimer Does Not End Elder Abuse Petition

A California appeals court in Santa Clara recently emphasized the public policy importance of discouraging elder abuse in a recent decision involving an ongoing contest to a revocable living trust. The trust was originally created by a married couple in 1990. Upon the wife’s death, the trust was subdivided into two trusts, one of which remained subject to amendment or revocation at the husband’s discretion.

The husband purportedly amended his trust for a final time in June 2008, just two weeks after he underwent major surgery. The principal effect of this amendment was to restore the inheritance of one of the husband’s sons, who had been excluded under an earlier trust amendment. The amendment also restored the inheritance of one of the previously excluded son’s children. The trust itself provided that all of the husband’s surviving grandchildren would split a $900,000 fund. The 2008 amendment therefore reduced each individual grandchild’s share by approximately $10,000 to account for the addition of the previously excluded grandson.

After the husband died in 2011, another grandchild contested the 2008 amendment, alleging it was the product of “undue influence” exerted by the previously excluded son and that the husband “lacked testamentary capacity” when he signed the amendment. On the first day scheduled for trial before the probate court, the son offered to compensate the contestant grandson the $10,000 difference, arguing this eliminated his standing to bring the contest at all. The previously excluded grandson subsequently agreed to disclaim his rights as a beneficiary in the trust. This satisfied the probate judge, holding that the conditional disclaimer effectively ended the intra-family squabble over the trust.

But the California Sixth District Court of Appeals disagreed. In a published opinion, the appeals court said the probate judge’s decision “was contrary to public policy and an abuse of discretion.” Siding with the contestant grandson, the Sixth District said that the other grandson’s disclaimer did not automatically invalidate the undue influence and elder abuse claims raised in the initial petition. “In light of long-held policies of effectuating a testator’s intent and dissuading elder abuse,” the court said it was improper for the probate judge to essentially “invite” dismissal of the case by accepting the grandson’s disclaimer. After all, the court noted, the grandson’s action served to protect his father’s own contested (and substantially larger) inheritance under the trust.

Get Help from a California Estate Planning Attorney

A person is most at risk for undue influence and elder abuse when they are making changes to their estate planning documents while hospitalized or even on their deathbed. You should not wait until it is too late. If you need help from an experienced San Diego estate planning lawyer in preparing or revising a will or trust, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today.

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