Undue Influence, and The Role of Probate Code Section 86
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Just because a decedent may have signed a will or trust does not necessarily mean that such documents cannot be challenged and invalidated. Wills and trusts may be considered invalid to the extent that their execution were procured through unlawful means, including, but not limited to, undue influence. Undue influence may have been exerted upon a decedent where, for example, such instruments were created by parties taking advantage of him or her in a weak and vulnerable state.
The California Supreme Court has defined undue influence as “pressure brought to bear directly on the testamentary act, sufficient to overcome the testator’s free will, amounting in effect to coercion destroying the testator’s free agency.” Rice v. Clark (2002) 28 Cal.4th 89, 96.
In California, undue influence can be proven either (1) directly, or (2) by shifting the burden of proof to the opposing party. Proving undue influence has directly occurred, however, has recently become much more straightforward.
Effective January 1, 2014, the California Legislature introduced Welfare and Institutions Code Section 15610.70 and Probate Code Section 86, which detail a new standard for proving undue influence and consists of four factors: (1) the vulnerability of the victim, (2) the influencer’s apparent authority, (3) the influencer’s conduct, and (4) the equity of the challenged result, which may include economic consequences of the victim, the relationship of the value of anything received, or the appropriateness of the chance given the nature and length of the relationship.
Since the introduction of Probate Code Section 86, the California Court of Appeal most noticeably began to interpret this new provision in the case, Lintz v. Lintz (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1346.
In 2014, the California Court of Appeal heard Lintz v. Lintz, a case brought by the decedent’s daughter against the decedent’s third wife. The decedent, a multi-millionaire, continuously rewrote his trust several times at the end of his life providing his third wife an increasingly larger share of his estate.
While California law prior to January 1, 2014 applied to Lintz, in the footnotes to the case, the court examined undue influence and widened the perspective of case law. The court noted the recent creation of Probate Code 86 had no effect on the court’s analysis and went so far as to state that Probate Code 86 “eliminates any doubt that the two standards (direct or burden shifting) are now the same.”
Lintz thus appears to serve as a transition from prior undue influence law to current. The new type of undue influence law should foster an environment of greater elder protection.
If you are involved in a probate dispute or litigation, seek the counsel of the highly sought after and experienced probate attorneys in Los Angeles at Keystone Law Group, P.C. We will assess your situation and create best course of action to achieve the best possible outcome. For further information or to schedule an appointment please contact us at 310.444.9060 or visit www.Keystone-Law.com.