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Understanding “undue influence”

When a will goes through the probate process and someone challenges its contents, they may do so because they believe the person who drafted the will was a victim of “undue influence.” Similarly, the concept of undue influence can arise in a number of other court proceedings. It sometimes comes into play when someone petitions to put a guardianship or conservatorship in place over someone else.

The term “undue influence” has, historically, been difficult to clearly define. However, there is a general consensus that it can occur in any situation where a confidential or fiduciary relationship exists between two people and one person tries to exert power and influence over someone else's decisions for personal gain.

Other situations where undue influence can factor in

While "undue influence" is a common phrase heard in probate court and guardianship and conservatorship proceedings, it can also come into play in other types of court proceedings. In some cases, allegations of undue influence arise in criminal court proceedings, while it also can come into play in contract law proceedings. Additionally, many older Americans fall victim to undue influence, either because they may lack the mental capacity to avoid it or because they have a high level of trust in the person attempting to influence them.

Why undue influence can prove hard to identify

Proving instances of undue influence can be difficult. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that instances of undue influence typically occur in private where there are no witnesses around to see them happen. In some instances, it can also prove difficult to determine whether someone’s decision is the result of undue influence or simply the result of personal preferences.

Because of the variables surrounding many undue influence allegations, some courts have decided to consider four distinct factors in making their determinations. The vulnerability of the victim, the level of authority the influencer has over the other party, the tactics used by the influencer and the consequences caused by the influence all often undergo consideration in court cases involving allegations of undue influence.

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