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What is Undue Influence? How to spot it and what to do about it.

A young man influencing an elderly gentleman

At its core, undue influence involves manipulating someone’s decision-making regarding their will. This manipulation results in a will that reflects the desires of the influencer rather than the true wishes of the person making the will. Undue influence in wills is a serious concern that can disrupt the final wishes of a loved one. By staying informed, watching for signs, and taking proactive steps to protect vulnerable family members, you can help ensure that the legacy left behind is true to their desires. Remember, in situations as delicate as these, empathy, understanding, and legal guidance are your best tools. For those facing potential cases of undue influence, it's important to seek professional advice and support to navigate these complex situations with care.

Recognising the Signs

Identifying undue influence can be tricky because it often happens in private. However, there are signs to look out for:

- Changes in Estate Planning: Sudden alterations to a will or estate plan, especially in favour of one person.

- Isolation: The person making the will is isolated from friends and family by the influencer.

- Dependency: The testator depends on the influencer for care, which can create opportunities for coercion.

- Vulnerability: Illness, age, or mental incapacity can make someone more susceptible to undue influence.

Legal Challenges

Proving undue influence is notoriously difficult due to the requirement for concrete evidence. Legal systems generally demand clear proof that the influencer exerted such pressure on the testator that it overrode their free will.

Gathering Evidence

Evidence is key to proving undue influence. This can include:

- Witness Testimony: Individuals who were aware of the manipulation or observed changes in behaviour.

- Documentation: Letters, emails, or other records that show the influencer's intent or actions.

- Expert Testimony: Medical or psychological professionals who can testify about the testator's vulnerability to undue influence.

Protecting Loved Ones

Prevention is always better than cure. Encouraging open conversations about estate planning, ensuring wills are updated regularly in the presence of legal counsel, and fostering strong, supportive family networks can help protect against undue influence.

Seeking Professional Advice

Given the complexity of proving undue influence, seeking professional legal advice is crucial. An experienced attorney can provide guidance on collecting evidence and navigating the legal process to challenge a will.

A son disappointed by his father leaving him out of the will

Case Study: The Vulnerable Elder and the Neighbouring Influence

Background: Mr. Ellis, an 80-year-old widower, lived alone in his family home. Known for his kind nature, Mr. Ellis had gradually become more reliant on his neighbour, Mr. Thompson, for daily tasks and company after his family moved away.

The Situation: Over time, Mr. Thompson's visits became more frequent, and he began to assist Mr. Ellis with his financial affairs, including banking and bill payments. Mr. Ellis trusted Mr. Thompson implicitly, viewing him as a surrogate family member.

Turning Point: After a year, Mr. Ellis updated his will, naming Mr. Thompson as the primary beneficiary, a significant change from the previous will that divided his estate among his children and grandchildren. This change was made after Mr. Thompson suggested he could take better care of Mr. Ellis's legacy.

Discovery: Mr. Ellis’s family discovered the change in his will after he was hospitalised following a mild stroke. Alarmed by the sudden shift in their father's final wishes, they initiated an investigation, suspecting undue influence.

Evidence and Outcome: The family's lawyer gathered evidence including witness testimonies from other neighbours who had noticed Mr. Thompson's increasing control over Mr. Ellis's life, and expert assessments of Mr. Ellis's vulnerability due to his age and health condition. The court found substantial evidence of undue influence, resulting in the will being declared invalid. Mr. Ellis's estate was subsequently redistributed according to the previous will.

Conclusion: This case highlights the importance of vigilance and the need for legal safeguards to protect vulnerable individuals from undue influence. It underscores the role of evidence in challenging suspicious changes to wills and the importance of professional legal and psychological assessments in such matters.

If you’re looking to write your will, lasting power of attorney or want to learn more about Lifetime Trusts book an appointment with Joshua Young. I am A Will Writer covering Farnborough, Basingstoke, Camberley, Aldershot and the surrounding areas.


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