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Understanding undue influence issues in Florida

It happens fairly often. An elderly person makes a typical will, leaving some portions of the estate to relatives and some others to charity. Maybe she sets up a trust. Then, suddenly, for no apparent reason, a new will appears, leaving the bulk of the estate to an unrelated individual, often a caretaker.

In such cases, the prior beneficiaries may well suspect undue influence. Understanding the basic legal definitions and requirements for setting aside a will based on undue influence and speaking with an experienced attorney can help you get a clearer picture of your options.

Relying on circumstantial proof

Florida law considers undue influence a type of fraud that involves deception or coercion. Because most people do not usually deceive or coerce elderly people in the presence of witnesses, most undue influence cases depend on circumstantial evidence.

3 threshold requirements

The law starts out with the presumption that technically complete wills are valid. However, if the party contesting the will proves three facts, the law will instead presume the presence of undue influence and require the proponent of the will to prove its absence. These three elements are:

  • A person who benefits substantially from the will,
  • who also had a particularly influential position over the testator,
  • took action to make sure the will came into being.

Common issues with proof

The first part is generally obvious from the provisions of the will. The second can be harder to show. Common factors that can show control or influence may include the amount of time spent with the beneficiary and the testator's dependence on the beneficiary for her physical or emotional well-being. While mental impairment alone will not show undue influence, it can definitely affect the testator's susceptibility to intimidation or manipulation.

The third part of this test can also turn into a hotly contested issue. Courts typically look at the presence of factors such as whether the beneficiary knew about the will beforehand, whether he was the one to retain the drafting attorney or to contact the witnesses, and whether he kept the will after execution.

Proving undue influence can involve complex issues that need substantial legla knowledge and litigation skills to resolve. If you suspect undue influence, consult a qualified estate litigation attorney as soon as possible.

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