You know your loved one well and have a good idea of what they would want if they were to become incapacitated or die. Maybe you’ve even discussed specifics about guardianship and inheritance with them over the years. That’s why it was such a shock to hear the terms of their Will or other legal documents and find that they are counter to what you believe your loved one would have wanted. In this situation, it might be possible to contest the legality of the document, particularly if you believe that your loved one was coerced or forced into signing it. This is known as undue influence, and it can be grounds for throwing out a legal document such as a Will.
What Is Considered Undue Influence in Texas?
For good reason, it is not easy to successfully contest and overturn a Will or other legal document. Being surprised or upset because you were left out of a Will does not give you grounds to contest it—at least not with any hope of success. However, if you can prove that someone exerted undue influence over your loved one in making or signing a Will, you could have grounds to contest it.
To prove undue influence in Texas, you will have to prove all three of the following elements:
- The existence and exertion of an influence. In other words, you must be able to identify the person who coerced your loved one and show that they had the opportunity to exert control over them.
- The effective operation of that influence so as to subvert or overpower the testator’s mind at the time of the execution of the testament. You must then prove that the person did, in fact, convince your loved one to make changes to an existing legal document or create an entirely new document. The coercion could have taken the form of deception, harassment, threats, or isolation.
- The execution of a testament which the maker would not have executed but for such influence. Finally, you must show that the terms of the Will or other legal document is contrary to what your loved one would have wanted.
The burden of proving these elements falls to the party contesting the Will unless the person being accused of undue influence had a fiduciary responsibility to the Will maker. If the influencer was a Power of Attorney agent, a legal guardian, an estate executor, or someone else with a financial duty to the Will maker, the burden could be on them to prove that they did NOT exert undue influence.
Examples of Undue Influence
It’s easy to get bogged down in legal jargon when talking about undue influence, so we want to take a look at a couple of hypothetical situations as examples of undue influence.
- Your older sister is the caretaker for your elderly mother, who is mentally competent but needs some help with housekeeping and personal care. During the time your sister is living with your mother, she allows the rest of the family very little access to her. Unbeknownst to you, your mother executes a new Will during this time. When she dies, you discover that there is a new Will and that your sister inherits the bulk of the estate. You know that your mother always intended to bequeath her estate to each of her children equally. Because your sister isolated your mother from the rest of the family, you could have a legitimate claim for undue influence.
- You helped your father sort out his Estate Plan when your mother died, so you know that he intended to leave a significant amount of money to each of his grandchildren. Several years later, he starts dating a younger woman. You and your siblings have noticed that the woman is very controlling and sometimes even cruel to your father. They never marry, so you are shocked to learn upon his death that your father wrote a new Will that cuts the grandchildren out and leaves a large amount of money to the girlfriend. Given the girlfriend’s treatment of your father and your knowledge of his original intentions, you probably have a good case for undue influence.
The death of a loved one is always a difficult time, and family drama can make it even worse. However, if you suspect that your loved one was forced into making Estate Plan changes they didn’t want, you need to talk to an attorney as soon as possible.
Do You Have Questions About Contesting a Will in Texarkana, TX?
If you think you have grounds to contest a Will in Texas or Arkansas, you need to speak with our experienced Probate and Guardianship attorneys today. Contact us online or call our Texarkana office directly at 903.223.5653. We also have offices in Tyler, Paris, Longview as well as Magnolia, Arkansas.