Undue influence is a troubling and often complex concept. Not everyone, or every state for that matter, agrees on what constitutes undue influence or how to prove it.
One major problem with defining and proving undue influence is the fact that there are rarely any witnesses to the improper behavior. Another is that —especially in probate matters —it can be difficult to overcome the fact that adults are legally able to make their own decisions. And it does not matter whether or not others like those decisions.
Although exceedingly difficult to prove, in many cases, undue influence is linked to an adult’s impaired cognitive capacity.
Undue Influence Basics
At its most basic level, undue influence is a form of mental or emotional abuse.
In the area of trusts and estates, undue influence is frequently seen when one person uses emotional, physical, or psychological pressure on another to force him (or her) to either give them something (e.g., money, the deed to the home, etc.) or to change their Will or trust to give them more than their fair share.
(For the purposes of this post, we will assume that a beneficiary has been accused of unduly influencing a decedent to change his Will in the beneficiary’s favor to the exclusion of other beneficiaries.)
Mental Disparity and Undue Influence
Because direct evidence is rarely available to prove undue influence, most cases must be proved with circumstantial evidence. The courts therefore look at a number of factors to determine whether a decedent was unduly influenced or not.
One of the factors (by no means the only factor) the Florida courts consider is the mental disparity between the decedent and the person accused of unduly influencing him or her. Where it can be shown that a beneficiary who had a confidential relationship with the deceased actively procured a benefit in the Will or trust, and there was a mental disparity between decedent and the beneficiary, a presumption of undue influence will arise.
Again, because undue influence relies on circumstantial evidence, there is no definitive set of facts or circumstances that prove undue influence. So, while mental disparity can be an indicator of undue influence, it is not determinative of it.
Every case of undue influence must be decided upon its own unique facts.
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