Proving Undue Influence in Washington
In general, a person has the right to distribute their property any way they wish. When a person executes a will, the will is presumed to be valid.
But what happens when family members or would-be heirs or beneficiaries suspect that the will does not reflect the recently-deceased person’s true intentions? This can lead to a will challenge based on “undue influence.”
What Is “Undue Influence”?
Undue influence occurs when a person’s free will and judgment are impacted by persuasion, trickery, insinuation, or flattery to convince the will-maker (also known as the testator) to change the terms of their will to the benefit of the person who is exerting undue influence.
Someone who wishes to challenge a will on the grounds of undue influence must prove three things:
- The person accused of exerting undue influence was in a confidential or fiduciary relationship with the will-maker;
- The beneficiary (the person accused of exerting undue influence) actively participated in the preparation of the will; and
- The beneficiary received an unusually large part of the estate.
Allegations of Undue Influence in a Will Contest
Allegations of undue influence occur in the context of a will contest. Family members of the deceased file a lawsuit claiming that someone exerted undue influence to cause the will-maker to alter the terms of the will to benefit the person accused of exerting undue influence (i.e., the beneficiary).
When deciding whether the will-maker was subject to undue influence, courts will consider the following factors:
- The age, health, and mental condition of the testator;
- The relationship between the testator and the beneficiary;
- Whether the beneficiary had the opportunity to exert undue influence; and
- The naturalness or unnaturalness of the terms of the will (i.e., whether the will is consistent with what the testator would have been expected to do).
The State of Washington’s Approach to Allegations of Undue Influence
Washington state courts recognize a strong preference in favor of the rights of an individual to control the disposition of their assets upon their death. Because of this deference to individual decision-making, some beneficiaries may be emboldened to attempt to unduly influence a testator.
While Washington state does not criminalize “mere persuasion,” the burden of proof is high for proving claims of undue influence. The person alleging undue influence must prove their claims by “clear, cogent, and convincing evidence.” This standard is higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard that is common in most civil cases. It has often been described as meaning greater than a 50% likelihood that undue influence was exerted. Yet it is lower than the burden of beyond a reasonable doubt that is required in criminal cases.
Signs of undue influence include:
- The testator was ill, confused, or otherwise vulnerable to undue influence;
- The testator had a trusted or confidential relationship with the beneficiary;
- Close family members were left out of the will and property was instead left to the beneficiary who is accused of undue influence;
- The suspected manipulator caused the testator to include terms that benefit the manipulator.
Seeking Justice for Victims of Undue Influence
In many cases, family members of the recently deceased do not even realize that undue influence occurred until they review the will of their deceased relative. Fortunately, this does not mean it is too late.
If you suspect a family member or loved one was subject to undue influence, you can challenge the validity of the will by filing a will contest in the probate court that has jurisdiction over your loved one’s estate.
Claims of undue influence can be brought to challenge the alleged manipulator, who can be forced to testify about their actions. In many cases, allegations of undue influence come down to one person’s word against another. But there are other signs the court can look at to determine whether a beneficiary exercised undue influence.
An experienced probate attorney can evaluate your claim and present it in a way that will help achieve justice for your family and your deceased relative.
Contact The Campbell Law Firm for Probate Litigation in Northwest Washington
If you suspect your recently deceased loved one was subject to undue influence, the Campbell Law Firm can help.
From his office in Anacortes, attorney Justin Campbell represents people in Island County, Oak Harbor, Coupeville, San Juan County, Friday Harbor, and all courts in Skagit County, including Anacortes, Mount Vernon, Burlington, and Sedro-Woolley.
Learn more about The Campbell Law Firm and why people choose us, read reviews from other clients, and contact us today to schedule a free, confidential consultation to discuss your case and how we can help.