Those with nefarious intentions often manipulate the elderly and other vulnerable people in our society. If someone convinces a loved one to change their will, power of attorney, or other vital documents you may not find out until after their death. Although this situation can be frustrating and upsetting, you can take action to prove undue influence and contest the will. If you need to contest a loved one’s will, it is vital to seek the counsel of an experienced wills and trusts attorney who understands the elements involved in proving undue influence.
What Is Undue Influence?
When someone in a confidential relationship with a testator (signer of a will) who has a weakened intellect convinces them to change their will, it can be considered an undue influence in Pennsylvania. This kind of manipulation often happens when a person suffers from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or another condition that affects their ability to make decisions.
Contesting a Will in Pennsylvania
Will contests are heard in the probate court (orphan’s court in PA). If a will has not been filed with the probate court, filing a caveat with the Register of Wills in the county where the testator lived at the time of their death puts a hold on the probate process until the challenges to the will are addressed. If a will has already been filed, you must file an appeal with the Register of Wills. Once an estate is open, it is important to act fast if you are going to contest a will.
Proving Undue Influence
To establish grounds to contest a will for undue influence in Pennsylvania, three elements must be established:
Confidential relationship – This means that the person who exerted influence over the testator was in a position of trust that inspired good faith. The person in the confidential relationship may be a relative, caregiver, doctor, accountant, attorney, or someone else who has access to the testator.
Substantial benefit – You must show that the person who influenced the testator would receive a large or considerable benefit from the changes to the will.
Weakened intellect –There are quite a few ways to describe a weakened intellect. In Pennsylvania, it has been successfully argued that a weakened intellect is one that is inferior to normal minds in reasoning power, factual knowledge, freedom of thought and decision, and other characteristics of a fully competent mentality.
To prove undue influence you must provide evidence. A seasoned probate attorney will know what type of evidence to collect and how to present it to show that undue influence occurred. This evidence may include medical records, statements from a decedent’s attorney, medical provider, family and friends, and the expert testimony of medical professionals, forensic accountants, and others. A judge will consider all the arguments and evidence and determine whether undue influence occurred. If fraud, physical or mental coercion, or other wrongful acts are proven, the court may void the will and enforce a previous will or distribute the estate according to the laws of intestate succession.
Involving your loved ones in estate planning can help protect your interests and avoid problems with your will after your passing. If you need assistance with contesting a will, our experienced team at Carosella & Associates can help.