Losing a loved one is never easy. However, certain situations can make it even more emotionally difficult to deal with such a loss. Shocking changes to a last will or an estate plan are a perfect example of complicating factors that can make grief even harder to process.
As a family member, beneficiary or heir, you likely had some level of understanding of what to expect in the last will or estate plan. However, after your loved one died, you learned that the last will or estate plan changed dramatically in the last months of their life. It is common to wonder if undue influence played a role in the changes, especially if a caretaker or new spouse benefited from those changes.
Thankfully, Washington probate law allows you to challenge a will in probate court if you believe the testator was unduly influenced by someone else. This can help set things right and protect your loved one's legacy from manipulation by someone else.
What is undue influence?
Undue influence is a legal term that refers to one person exerting pressure on the decision-making of another. People who have medical issues or who are aging may be particularly susceptible to this kind of underhanded behavior, especially if they depend on someone else for daily care.
Sadly, undue influence often involves a spouse, child or caretaker whom the testator thought they could trust. These people may isolate the person they are supposed to care for and attempt to undermine their relationships with other people. They may also attempt to sway the testator by sharing stories of their financial hardships and difficulties.
As someone's mental faculties decline with age, they may become more vulnerable to this kind of pressure. This is particularly true for people with degenerative conditions, dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
What are warning signs of undue influence?
The most glaring warning sign of undue influence in an estate plan or last will is when it benefits one heir or beneficiary significantly more than others. A lopsided last will that leaves far more to one person than other heirs could be an indicator of undue influence. Similarly, last-minute changes that benefit someone who had direct, ongoing access to the deceased are also warning signs of undue influence.
Thankfully, if someone took the unethical step of attempting to sway another person into leaving them more assets than they wanted to, you have legal options. Challenging the will or asking the probate court to review the last will can help rectify the situation. The courts may choose either to invalidate the last will entirely or potentially revert to a previous version of the last will. Every situation is different, so it is likely in your best interest to seek advice about whether undue influence as likely in your case.