When used in a legal context, undue influence refers to circumstances in which one person unfairly or unduly pressures or coerces an individual who is making an important decision. Undue influence can occur in many different situations. A claim of undue influence is most often encountered in an action contesting a will or trust, but it also can be asserted to challenge the validity of other documents, such as powers of attorney, healthcare advance directives, gifts, deeds, adding owners to joint bank accounts, and other contracts.
Questions about undue influence often arise because of family situations. For example, if an elder family member marries a much younger person and disinherits all the children from the previous marriage in a will or trust, family members may suspect undue influence by the new spouse. Similarly, if an elder leaves his or her estate to a caregiver to the detriment of other possible beneficiaries, family members may wonder if the caregiver exerted undue influence over the elder by taking advantage of the close relationship and reliance of the elder on the caregiver.
What Constitutes Undue Influence?
Michigan does not have a statute that defines undue influence, but there are court decisions that set standards for undue influence claims. In the absence of statutory law, rules set in definitive court decisions apply to court determinations in subsequent cases.
Michigan’s legal standards were set in a 1976 Michigan Supreme Court case opinion which stated that establishing undue influence requires showing that the person making the decision was “subject to threats, misrepresentation, undue flattery, fraud, or physical or moral coercion sufficient to overpower volition, destroy free agency and impel the grantor to act against his inclination and free will.” The court went on to say that opportunity, ability to control, and even motive are insufficient to establish undue influence in the absence of other evidence.
In other words, undue influence is unfair persuasion or coercion — including extreme pressure or threats — that overcomes the free will of an individual making a decision and replaces that individual’s will and wishes with the will and desires of the person exerting the undue influence. A determination of whether undue influence occurred is based on the total circumstances surrounding a decision, rather than on one specific fact.
Not all influence constitutes undue influence. The existence of a close relationship between two people does not establish undue influence, nor do mere acts of kindness. But undue influence can occur when two people have a special relationship and one person takes advantage of the relationship by improperly influencing important decisions of the other individual.
Importantly, a claim of undue influence assumes that the individual who made the decision had the capacity to make the decision. Lack of capacity is a completely different claim sometimes used to challenge a will, trust, or other legal document.
How Can You Prove Undue Influence in Court?
To be eligible to make a claim of undue influence, you must either be designated as a beneficiary in the will or trust made by the individual who was influenced, or be eligible to inherit from that individual under Michigan’s laws of intestate succession.
When a petition asserting a claim of undue influence is filed in probate court, the petitioner has the burden of substantiating the allegations to the court. Proving a claim of undue influence requires a significant amount of factual and circumstantial evidence to be produced.
In Michigan, there are circumstances that can give rise to a presumption of undue influence, requiring the opposing party to rebut the presumption in court. The presumption will arise if all of the following three factors are present and demonstrated in court:
- There is a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the two people;
- The person exerting the influence, or someone he or she represents, benefits from the transaction or decision; and
- The opportunity to influence the decision existed.
Fiduciary or confidential relationships exist in specific situations, including guardian/ward, trustee/beneficiary, lawyer/client, accountant/client, and doctor/patient. Confidential relationships can also exist in other situations when one person places trust in another, so that the second individual exerts influence over the first, or when an individual assumes control and responsibility for another person — such as a caregiver or guardian.
As noted above, the fact that a close relationship exists does not by itself prove that undue influence occurred. To give rise to the presumption, it is also necessary to show that the person who asserted the influence had the opportunity to pressure the individual making the decision and benefited from the decision.
Regardless of the relationship and circumstances, undue influence claims are difficult and complex. The cases are most often largely circumstantial. Hearings usually involve a considerable amount of evidence and testimony from witnesses both supporting the claim and opposing it.
If you are in any situation where you suspect a situation involving undue influence, it is extremely important to discuss the situation with an experienced probate litigation attorney. Only a knowledgeable Michigan attorney will be able to advise you whether a claim for undue influence is even plausible under the state’s laws.
If You Are Facing an Undue Influence Situation
Our probate litigation attorneys at BRMM have many years of experience in court actions involving will contests and trust issues, including claims of undue influence. If you have a situation that may present undue influence over the terms of a will, trust, or other legal document, we welcome your inquiry. We will discuss the circumstances with you, evaluate the situation, and help you determine the best course to pursue.
BRMM has been helping clients throughout southeastern Michigan since 1970. We are located in Troy, Michigan, and serve clients throughout the Tri County and Detroit area, as well as in other parts of Michigan. Call us at (248) 213-9514 or complete our online form to set up a free initial consultation.