Will and Trust Undue Influence in California

Undue influence is typically proven by inference or circumstantial evidence, not limited to the actual time that the will or trust was executed but also based on facts relevant to the issues both before and after execution. Estate of Franco (1975) 50 Cal. App. 3d 374, 382; Estate of Baker (1982) 131 Cal. App. 3d 471, 481.  To make the determination more difficult, different law and standards can apply depending on whether the document in question is a will or trust, different judges will apply different standards and approaches, and there can be a presumption that a signed will or trust that isn’t a forgery is valid and effective. On the other hand however, a presumption of undue influence can apply in certain statutory, fiduciary, and confidential relationship situations.  The facts and evidence in each case need to be carefully evaluated particularly when the will or trust contains provisions that are not natural to what the testator would have wanted and in cases where there are significant sudden or significant changes.

Undue influence consists of conduct that causes the testator to make a disposition of his or her property that is different from that which he or she could have done had he or she been permitted to follow his or her own inclination. Estate of Baker (1982) 131 Cal. App. 3d 471, 480-81.

Pursuant to California Civil Code §1575, undue influence exists upon any one of the following separate and distinct criteria:

(1) the use, by one in whom confidence is reposed by another, or who holds a real or apparent authority over him, of such confidence or authority for the purpose of obtaining an unfair advantage over him;

(2) taking an unfair advantage of another’s weakness of mind; or

(3) taking a grossly oppressive and unfair advantage of another’s necessities or distress.

There is no fixed definition or inflexible formula – rather the question is whether from the entire context it appears that the testator was induced or his decision making was induced to do or forbear to not an action which he or she would not do, or would do, if left to act freely. Keithley v. Civil Service Board (1970) 11 Cal. App. 3d 443, 451.

Under Cal. Civ. Code §1575(2) the weakness of mind can be temporary and need not be incapacitating. Odorizzi v. Bloomfield School District (1966) 246 Cal. App. 2d 123, 131. Under Cal. Civ. Code §§1575(2) and (3) the use of over-persuasion is often accompanied by certain characteristics examples of which might be: discussion of the transaction at an unusual or inappropriate time; consummation of the transaction in an unusual place; insistent demand that the event be finished at once; emphasis on the untoward consequences of delay; the use of multiple persuaders; the absence of third-parties; or statements that there is no time to consult others. Odorizzi v. Bloomfield School District (1966) 246 Cal. App. 2d 123, 133.

Although fraud and undue influence are separate grounds for setting aside a will, and undue influence can be found without any fraud, undue influence also can be a species of fraud or constructive fraud as undue influence and fraud can be closely related and fraud may be considered in determining whether there was undue influence. Estate of Garibaldi (1961) 57 Cal. 2d 108, 114; O’Neil v. Spillane (1975) 45 Cal. App. 3d 147, 158 (undue influence as a species of constructive fraud); Stewart v. Marvin (1956) 139 Cal. app. 2d 769, 775 (undue influence as a species of constructive fraud); Estate of Newhall (1923) 190 Cal. 709, 718; Estate of Ricks (1911) 160 Cal. 467, 480; however, see also, Hagen v. Hickenbottom (1995) 41 Cal. App. 4th 168(a showing of false or fraudulent statement is not a necessary element of undue influence).

The California elder abuse statutes provide yet another statutory definition of undue influence.  California Welfare and Institutions Code section §15610.70 provides the following definition:

15610.70. (a) “Undue influence” means excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity. In determining whether a result was produced by undue influence, all of the following shall be considered:

(1) The vulnerability of the victim. Evidence of vulnerability may include, but is not limited to, incapacity, illness, disability, injury, age, education, impaired cognitive function, emotional distress, isolation, or dependency, and whether the influencer knew or should have known of the alleged victim’s vulnerability.

(2) The influencer’s apparent authority. Evidence of apparent authority may include, but is not limited to, status as a fiduciary, family member, care provider, health care professional, legal professional, spiritual adviser, expert, or other qualification.

(3) The actions or tactics used by the influencer. Evidence of actions or tactics used may include, but is not limited to, all of the following:

(A) Controlling necessaries of life, medication, the victim’s interactions with others, access to information, or sleep.

(B) Use of affection, intimidation, or coercion.

(C) Initiation of changes in personal or property rights, use of haste or secrecy in effecting those changes, effecting changes at inappropriate times and places, and claims of expertise in effecting changes.

(4) The equity of the result. Evidence of the equity of the result may include, but is not limited to, the economic consequences to the victim, any divergence from the victim’s prior intent or course of conduct or dealing, the relationship of the value conveyed to the value of any services or consideration received, or the appropriateness of the change in light of the length and nature of the relationship.

(b) Evidence of an inequitable result, without more, is not sufficient to prove undue influence.

The facts and evidence in each case need to be carefully evaluated.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco / California)

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