Berman & Asbel, LLP

Questions of vulnerability arise in undue influence trial

There are a lot of safeguards in the estate planning process to ensure that the plans that go into effect for distributing a person’s estate are their own. This is because our legal system places emphasis on honoring the wishes of the deceased as much as possible, even in situations where it is difficult to figure out what their wishes were. At the same time we also impose some basic standards for executing a valid will and making valid changes as a way to reduce the likelihood of fraud or undue influence. 

Still, situations arise in which relatives or friends question the circumstances surrounding the creation of an estate plan. We’ve written about one example of that in the past, in the case of a copper heiress whose healthcare workers gained substantially from a second version of her will. Now another case in which the family is questioning the circumstances surrounding an estate plan has made the news, this time during the trial process in a dispute over whether a son unduly influenced his ailing father.

In this case the big question is whether the man was in a vulnerable mental state that his son took advantage of to convince his father to change his estate plan to the son’s benefit. The trial has gone on for quite a while as each side presents evidence to support their side of the story. Last week the man’s niece presented evidence on the issue of the man’s vulnerability, bringing in a geriatric psychiatrist to testify about whether he was susceptible to undue influence. The testimony was based on a review of medical records which revealed a struggle with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety along with physical ailments such as paralysis. These conditions combined with the stress of his wife’s illness and the loss of two of his children made the man very vulnerable according to the doctor. The final decision on that issue will be made by the jury.

Source:, "Crises cited at inheritance trial," Kibret Markos, Oct. 17, 2013.

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