Undue Influence in Washington State

by David Meyer on August 25, 2009

The Meyer Law Firm, P.C. has been successfully involved in and litigated many cases where undue influence was exerted over a decedent. In fact, in a majority of estate disputes concerning the validity of the will or trust or a lifetime gift there is some allegation of undue influence. The following provides some general information regarding to undue influence.

What is Undue Influence?

The Supreme Court of Washington states that undue influence occurs when one person’s free will is overcome and substituted by the will of another person. In other words, the person is not exercising his/her own wishes but that of the party exerting the influence. It is an issue which comes up frequently, not only in the context of making a will or trust, but also in dealing with transfers of property by a vulnerable person.

Undue influence typically occurs when a vulnerable person is dependent upon the party exerting the undue influence in either an emotional or physical manner. For example, caregiver are often found to unduly influence their clients to give them property by gift or by will. Oftentimes, family members who take charge of the financial and/or physical care of the vulnerable person might abuse the trust which the family and vulnerable adult have placed in that person.

How Do You Prove Undue Influence?

Normally the party claiming the undue influence has the burden of proving undue influence by the legal standard of “clear, cogent and convincing evidence”. This is an enhanced burden of proof that is often very difficult to establish.

Undue influence is usually proved by circumstantial evidence rather than by the direct testimony of witnesses who observed someone compelling a decedent to act in a certain manner. The Washington Supreme Court in the case of Dean v. Jordan, 194 Wash. 661, 79 P.2d 331 (1938), stated there are basically six indicators to which one can look to establish undue influence. The first three are considered the most important. Those criteria are:

It is not necessary to show all of the indicators and seldom would all be present.

  1. Fiduciary Relationship. If the perpetrator is in a confidential or fiduciary relationship with the decedent, the perpetrator is likely to be in a position to impose his/her judgment onto the decedent. Fiduciary relationships are readily found to exist in any situation where a vulnerable decedent would be expected to trust, and rely to a large extent, on another for aide or assistance in any manner. The presence of a fiduciary relationship between the person making a will or gift and a beneficiary is a key element of most undue influence cases, and the perpetrator has the burden to prove that the act was not the result of his/her influence.
  2. Participation in the preparation/procurement of the will. This factor is often combined with a fiduciary relationship to create what courts often call a “strong inference of undue influence.” The participation or procurement often follows a pattern of the beneficiary’s attorney, or an attorney found by the beneficiary, drawing up the will or creating the gift transfer documents.
  3. Receipt of an unusual or unnaturally large part of the estate. This is a subjective evaluation, based on the beneficiary’s relationship and role in the decedent’s life, and how it compares to the size of his or her bequest relative to the roles/bequests to others who might be expected to take.
  4. The age, health and mental vigor of the testator. Physical or mental weakness does not, in its own right, establish undue influence. It is simply a factor that can make one more susceptible of being influenced.
  5. Opportunity for exerting undue influence. Cases finding this factor to be important typically have involved beneficiaries who actually lived with the decedent and have constant contact with him/her. The “opportunity” is more significant if the decedent was relatively isolated and lacked contacts with others who might have provided the testator with countervailing influences.
  6. “Naturalness” of the act. Another indicator of whether undue influence may have been present is whether the act is “natural” – that is, whether the gift or bequest distributes the decedent’s estate to the natural objects of his/her bounty. Naturalness depends upon the circumstances of the decedent’s life and relationships.

These criteria are very subjective, and it is difficult to predict how a court will determine any particular set of facts.

If you believe you have been disinherited because someone has unduly influenced your loved one, give David Meyer founder of The Meyer Law Firm, P.C. a call to set an appointment to review your case. Call 425.455.1002 or email David@Meyerlaw.net.

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