When a family member or heir challenges a final will and testament, one of the most common complaints is that a person used undue influence to change the decedent’s final will. Typically, the person challenging the will in probate court has the burden of proving the claims, but in certain scenarios, the burden of proof can shift to the accused party to prove that he or she did not alter the will. If you are preparing to challenge a will or have been accused of undue influence, understanding how the burden of proof shifts in these cases can be critical to the success of your claims. Call or contact a probate attorney in your area to learn more about your legal options in a will challenge in your state.
What is Undue Influence?
Undue influence is a challenge typically tied challenges of lack of capacity of the decedent at the time that the final will and testament was created or modified. In these situations, the will challenger claims that the proponent of the will exerted so much control and influence over the decedent that this person overcame the wishes of the decedent in the estate plan and replaced them with his or her own. The will challenger asserts that the terms of the will are actually those of the will proponent, and not the wishes of the deceased.
Shifting the Burden of Proof
In most cases of will challenges, the person challenging the terms of the will has the burden of proof to show that the final will and testament is not in-line with the wishes of the decedent. However, the burden of proof can be shifted to the proponent of the will under certain circumstances for claims of undue influence. In these cases, the burden shifts from the will challenger to prove the claims to the will proponent to disprove the claims when it can be shown that a confidential relationship existed between the will proponent and the decedent in addition to suspicious circumstances surrounding the preparation and execution of the will.
To have a confidential relationship means that the will proponent had a close and personal relationship with the decedent in which they spent time together and apart from others. This could be a family member, friend, or caretaker of the deceased. Suspicious circumstances refers to a number of scenarios regarding the preparation and execution of the will, including but not limited to the following:
- The proponent’s presence at the signing of the will
- The proponent’s presence when the deceased wished to create a will
- The proponent’s recommendation of a specific lawyer to write the will
- The proponent’s knowledge of the contents of the will prior to execution
- If the proponent gave instructions to the attorney about the preparation of the will
- If the proponent secured the witnesses for the signing of the will
- If the proponent was in charge of safekeeping the will after execution