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How can undue influence invalidate a will?

Going through probate allows the decedent’s will to be executed according to his or her wishes -- if there is not a successful challenge to its validity. The probate process also allows people who believe they were wrongfully denied beneficiary status, or were given less than they believe the decedent actually intended, to contest the will.

One reason a probate judge will set aside a will is if the challenger can prove that the decedent was under undue influence when he or she signed it. “Undue influence” means that a person’s free will has been usurped somehow. Obviously, a person in that state cannot create or amend a will that reflects his or her true wishes.

Nobody likes to think of themselves as capable of being manipulated, but certain life events, emotional states and illnesses can leave even the strongest of us vulnerable to outside influence. For example, the death of a spouse, depression, social isolation and Alzheimer’s disease can create the conditions by which a person can be exploited.

If the wrong person finds the testator in a vulnerable state, he or she could be in serious trouble. The American Bar Association says there are three general types of people who use undue influence on vulnerable people: con artists, people who take pleasure in the manipulation, and well-meaning people who eventually convince themselves they “deserve” a big share of the testator’s estate.

Their tactics can range from making the testator completely dependent on them, to undermining relationships with others, to outright deceiving the testator. Then, the manipulator uses persuasion, pressures or even tortures the client into making him or her a major beneficiary in a new will.

Family members who were not able to stop the undue influence before the decedent passed away may be able to successfully challenge the will in court. Alternatively, a false claim of undue influence may require a probate attorney to defend against.

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