Allegations of undue influence are among the more common reasons a will may face challenges. It is important to understand what this concept means and how Massachusetts probate courts tend to approach it.
Part of planning your estate is taking steps to protect your will and other instruments against likely challenges. While you cannot guarantee a smooth probate, you can increase its likelihood by identifying potential weaknesses and taking protective action.
Unfairness not enough to set aside wills
Sometimes, a testator's relatives try to claim any provision they do not like must stem from undue influence. However, strangeness or even extreme unfairness is not a reason to set aside a provision so long as the testator made it of his or her own free will. A person has no legal obligation to leave property fairly or according to expectations. However, such provisions may count as one of the factors that may indicate the presence of undue influence.
Red flags for undue influence
Undue influence generally occurs when another person takes advantage of the testator and induces him or her to make provisions in the influencer's favor. There are several factors that may indicate the presence of undue influence. These include a will that disproportionately favors the influencer contrary to expectation, the vulnerability of the testator, the position of the influencer and the presence of questionable tactics.
Common types of pressure that may constitute undue influence include fraud, deception, psychological pressure, isolation and threats. The more vulnerable or dependent the testator is, the greater the likelihood that these or similar actions unduly influenced him or her.
In the same vein, when the beneficiary in question is also a fiduciary, courts tend to put the burden of disproving allegations of undue influence on that person. Generally, a person may have a fiduciary relationship if he or she has control over the testator's affairs. This can be a relative but also a professional such as an attorney or another type of agent.