When a will is admitted to the Court for probate, there are often parties who contest the will and attack its contents These parties are generally the children or other family members of a decedent who would have inherited under the decedent’s will had the decedent not made later in life changes to their will. Often times what the contestants argue is that the decedent was a product of undue influence, coerced into changing their will by a person with whom they had a special relationship or upon whom they relied for care.
The contestants can attack the validity of the will by arguing undue influence. In certain situations, undue influence is presumed. When a will gives property to a person’s caregiver, the person who drafted the will, or the person who paid to have the will drafted, those transfers are presumed void. For example, if an elderly person’s in-home nurse is beneficiary of their will; the Court will declare the will void and refuse to distribute the property to the nurse.
The theory being that the elderly person relied on the nurse for care, and the nurse could have abused her position and coerced the elderly person into naming her as a beneficiary under their will. To rebut the presumption, the nurse would have to prove to the Court by clear and convincing evidence that the gift of property to her through the will was truly the wishes of the decedent and not the product of undue influence.
In other situations, wills are attacked by family members based on undue influence when a will disposes of property in ways that seem unnatural or suspicious. In a case where the presumption of undue influence does not apply, a will contestant must prove undue influence by a preponderance of the evidence.
Meaning, that the contestant must show the court that the gifts under the will were “more likely than not” the product of undue influence. A situation may arise when an elderly person is befriended by someone later in life, and that person ends up taking under a will where the person’s children were originally set to take.
Undue Influence in Nevada Case Law
The Nevada Supreme Court recently decided In the Matter of the Estate of Arlan Edward Bethurem, that this somewhat relaxed standard of proof was the best way to protect vulnerable persons who may have been susceptible to pressures that overrode their true wishes for disposition of their property.[i] The Court established a strong public policy of protecting the elderly and the vulnerable by accepting circumstantial evidence to prove undue influence, noting that pressures may be exerted in secret and impossible to prove.
Although the Court did not impose the highest standard of proof for showing undue influence, it should not be taken lightly, as substantial evidence will need to be presented to meet the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence.
As always, if you or someone you know is faced with a situation as illustrated above, where their loved one may have been the product of undue influence, make sure you consult an experienced probate attorney. Caution should always be taken before attacking the terms of a will because doing so may make you ineligible to inherit under the decedent’s other estate plans, such as a trust. Additionally, an attorney can assist in weighing the likelihood of your chances of successfully invalidating a will.
For a consultation on this or any other issues, contact our knowledgeable probate attorneys at Clear Counsel Law Group.
[i] 129 Nev. Advance Opinion 92, November 27, 2013.