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“Undue Influence” Can Undo Your Estate Planning Intentions

Your deathbed is not the right place to make a will or begin the estate planning process. Individuals who are hospitalized or dying are often subject to the undue influence of others. California courts may invalidate a will or other estate planning document if there is substantial evidence of such undue influence.

In Re Estate of Slocum

Here is a recent example of undue influence from a California Court of Appeal decision. This case is discussed for informational purposes only and should not be treated as legal advice.
In August 2011, a 76-year-old woman died following complications from surgery. She did not leave a will, but nine days before her death, while still hospitalized, she signed a deed transferring her home to one of her seven children. This child had lived with her for about five years prior to her death, and he was the one who arranged for the deed.

Another child was named executor of the mother’s estate. She filed a petition to cancel the deed, alleging her brother exercised undue influence over their mother to acquire the house for himself. If the deed was not valid, the house (or the proceeds from the sale of the property) would be divided equally among the children, as the mother left no will.

A probate judge agreed with the executor. The court found the mother knew she was dying and “vulnerable to coercion.” The mother had indicated she wanted all of her children to inherit equally. The son knew this, yet still presented his mother with a deed she did not fully understand the “true impact” of. Accordingly, the probate court canceled the deed, returning the property to the mother’s estate.

The Court of Appeal upheld the probate court’s decision. The appeals court acknowledged there was conflicting testimony regarding the mother’s intent. While some siblings testified their mother wanted the estate divided equally among all her children, other witnesses sided with the son, who said she decided to leave the house to him alone so it would not be sold and “stay in the family.”

That said, the court said there was more than sufficient evidence of the son’s undue influence. For one thing, the mother never received independent legal advice regarding the deed. Her son simply presented her with a completed document and asked her to sign it, while she lay dying in a hospital room. These circumstances alone create a legal presumption of undue influence, which the son could not overcome, according to both the probate and appeals court.

Always Get Independent Legal Advice

This litigation could have been avoided if the mother had simply made a will before her final hospitalization, specifying her intentions regarding the property. If, in fact, she wanted to keep the property “in the family,” she might have established a trust to that effect. But in any case, the lack of any estate planning opened the door for her son’s undue influence.

Estate planning allows you to take charge of your own property. Do not rely upon family members who may have their own agendas. An experienced California estate planning attorney can provide you with independent advice regarding the best options for you and your property. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today if you have any questions.

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