Burdens Of Proof And Presumptions In Challenges To Wills And Estates
Undue influence is one way that family members or beneficiaries can challenge the validity of a will. But there are a lot of difficulties in proving undue influence.
Witnesses are Gone
One primary problem is that the deceased is now gone; there is often no way to know what the relationship was between the deceased and the person who inherited under the estate documents.
The other problem is that in many cases, the deceased left items in a will to someone else knowingly and voluntarily—just because someone who helped, and who was close with, an older, infirm person inherits from that person’s will, doesn’t automatically mean that there was any excess influence or coercion.
Burdens of Proof
As in many cases, the person making the challenge has to make the first proof.
The challenger (that is, the party saying that the will is invalid), must show that the beneficiary received something of value, or a substantial benefit, from the estate or will. What a substantial benefit is, will vary from case to case, but certainly, if the beneficiary receives a larger percentage of the overall dollar value of the estate, that would be considered substantial.
The challenger also must show that the beneficiary had a close or confidential or fiduciary relationship with the deceased, and that the beneficiary had an active role in obtaining the benefits in the will to other estate documents. That doesn’t have to be any type of legal or contractual relationship—just a close position of trust and confidence, can show the relationship needed.
“Active role,” can mean that the beneficiary obtained any attorney that drafted the will or whether the beneficiary was present when the will was drafted, or the level of participation the beneficiary had (both in preparing the will, and in communicating with any estate attorney), and how much the beneficiary participated or contributed to what went into the drafting of the will.
The Burden Shifts
Those aren’t easy things to prove. If these cannot be proven, there is the risk that the case will be lost. But if they are proven, that doesn’t mean the case is automatically won—the beneficiary will then have the burden of showing that there was no influence exerted. This is a “negative burden” as the beneficiary is showing something that did not happen (coercion or influence).
But because the deceased is gone, the beneficiary is often in a favorable condition—there is nobody to directly refute what the beneficiary is saying. If you are challenging the will, you will need to use extrinsic evidence, or evidence from witnesses, to demonstrate the overreaching relationship between the deceased and the beneficiary.
When both sides have demonstrated their case, the court will make a decision.
Call the West Palm Beach probate lawyers at The Law Offices of Larry E. Bray today for help today, if you have a will, will contest, or probate court challenge or problem.