Undue influence in California is defined by statute. The definition of undue influence under California law is broad. 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.” Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15610.70. In probate, undue influence is often alleged as a ground to invalidate a decedent’s will. To learn about additional grounds, see How to Contest a Will in California.
Factors of Undue Influence in California
The test for undue influence is governed by a series of listed factors set forth in section 15610.70 including:
(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.
Inequity is Not Enough to Prove Undue Influence in California
Section 15610.70 also provides that “evidence of an inequitable result, without more, is not sufficient to prove undue influence.”
How do you prove undue influence in California?
To prove undue influence in California, you must present evidence showing the factors that the court is required to consider to determine if undue influence occurred. Direct evidence as to undue influence is rarely obtainable. So, a court or jury must determine the issue of undue influence by inferences drawn from all the facts and circumstances. As a matter of law, the California probate court’s undue influence finding need not be supported by direct evidence of undue influence at the moment decedent signed the trust instruments.
Vulnerability of the Victim
The vulnerability of a victim of undue influence in California can take many forms. First, the victim can lack capacity because of dementia, mental illness, a physical or functional decline, or an injury. Perhaps the victim suffers from deficits in judgment or insight because of medications or alcohol abuse.
Vulnerability could also be situational. Perhaps the victim is depressed over a loss, and feels lonely, anxious or fearful
Undue Influencer’s Apparent Authority
An undue influencer has to have some apparent authority over the victim, some power that induces the victim to do what the influencer wants. Sometimes an influencer is a person in a position of trust or confidence, such as a:
- Family member
- Professional authority
- Care provider
- Clergy or spiritual advisor
Often the undue influencer will have a charismatic and persuasive personality.
Actions or Tactics
The actions and tactics used by the undue influencer is perhaps the most critical factor in presenting a California undue influence challenge. An influencer often:
- Controls the victim’s social interactions
- Isolates the victim
- Poisons relationships between the victims and loved ones
- Induces a sense of obligation and indebtedness
- Induces a sense of reliance
- Controls communication
- Acts in secret
- Initiates actions when the victim lacks capacity, or is hospitalized
Equity of the Result
The equity of the result is a factor of undue influence, but is not enough to prove undue influence. In probate cases, evidence of inequity can be a divergence from the decedent’s expressed wishes or past patterns, or an unnatural disposition of assets. You can also look at the relationship of the undue influencer with the decedent. For example, a short-term friend, a caregiver, or fiduciary who suddenly becomes the beneficiary of decedent’s entire estate raises some red flags.
Shifting the burden of proof
When pursuing a claim of undue influence, the burden of proof can be shifted to the undue influencer to prove that they did not commit undue influence. To do so, you need to prove that the evildoer (1) was in a confidential relationship with the decedent, (2) actively procured the will or other testamentary document, and (3) unduly benefited from the new document.