Undue influence refers to the allegation that someone other than the deceased manipulated the contents of a will. It is one of the more difficult accusations to prove because one key witness, the deceased, is absent.
However, there have been numerous cases where a judge ruled in favor of the allegation. The key is being able to demonstrate undue influence with both circumstantial and direct evidence.
What is Undue Influence?
Undue influence occurs when someone exercises enough control over the deceased to benefit from the contents of the will in a way that does not reflect the true desires of the deceased.
Suspicion usually arises when the will reveals that key family members were removed or surprisingly overlooked or another individual appears (sometimes “out of nowhere”) as a key recipient of the estate.
Difference Between Direct and Circumstantial Evidence
In short, the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence lies in how much narrative is required to demonstrate an accusation.
For example, prior to an elderly father’s death, their caretaker (a non-family member) appeared secretive and controlling of who was allowed to visit the father. She also had control over his medications. The father suffered from dementia and was mostly bedridden. While not any one of these facts necessarily constitutes suspicion of undue influence, when they are put together, they tell a story that makes suspicion reasonable.
With direct evidence, there must be clear witness testimony that will show in black-and-white that the caretaker in the example above benefited significantly in the will to the detriment of other family members.
For instance, in addition to the circumstantial evidence and the caretaker’s presence in the will, several neighbors testified that they overheard the caretaker verbally abusing the father. One neighbor testified to having seen the caretaker violently shove the father as he was trying to get up from a chair. The contents of the will and the witness testimonies are examples of direct evidence.
As a general rule, direct evidence is far more compelling than circumstantial evidence. However, clear undue influence cases often have a healthy mix of both.
How Direct Evidence Can Help in Your Probate Case
Naturally, if someone benefits from the contents of the will in a surprising or unexpected way, this can be one piece of direct evidence. No one can be found guilty of undue influence if they did not benefit from changes in the will.
To prove your undue influence case, you will need witnesses to support your claim that the accused intentionally isolated the estate owner and controlled their everyday life. You will also need to show through medical records that before death, the deceased was physically and mentally unable to stand up to the control of the accused.
Other kinds of direct evidence can come in the form of the accused being set up as the one that controlled all the finances and legal matters of the deceased.
How Circumstantial Evidence Can Help in Your Probate Case
Combined with direct evidence, showing that the circumstances were ripe for undue influence can also help your case. The court should know if the relationship between the accused and the deceased looked somewhat or highly suspicious.
Circumstantial evidence can point to the nature of the relationship between the accused and the deceased. It demonstrates how there was ample opportunity for undue influence to take place. And when taking the direct evidence into account, you can make a solid case that not only could it have happened, but that it clearly did happen.
Chances are, you are not able to win an undue influence case purely on circumstantial evidence.
What Should You Look for in a Probate Litigation Attorney?
In probate court, an experienced probate litigation attorney must be able to carefully present your direct and circumstantial evidence in a way that clearly demonstrates undue influence.
Make sure your probate litigation attorney has plenty of experience and expertise in trials and litigation. Inexperienced attorneys are a major liability in an undue influence case.
For more information about how a South Florida attorney can help you identify and seek justice for undue influence in probate, contact Balkan and Patterson at 561-750-9191 or visit our website.