Fundamentals of Undue Influence and What it Takes to Invalidate a Will Based on these Grounds

June 11, 2024

There are Critical Elements Necessary to Establish Undue Influence and Manipulation over a Vulnerable Person in New Jersey

Fundamentals of Undue Influence and What it Takes to Invalidate a NJ Will Based on these GroundsIf you or someone you love have felt pressured to sign a contract, change a will, or make some other significant financial decision that seems to benefit the party applying pressure than you or your loved one, then you might wonder what legal options exist for you. For example, say that an elderly woman recently lost her husband and is grieving. She hires a caretaker for daily assistance and, soon after, she changes her will to leave all of her assets to this caretaker. When her family learns about this, they are very concerned and they suspect that she was coerced or manipulated by the caretaker. Fortunately, recourse is available to the victims of these situations, but it requires the victim or other would-be beneficiaries to prove undue influence.

Undue Influence in NJ Defined

Undue influence is a legal concept that is often invoked to challenge or contest wills, contracts, or trusts. In New Jersey, it is defined as manipulating a person’s decision making process in order to gain a benefit and often at the expense of the decision maker’s true intentions. It is important to note that merely influencing someone’s decision, even if it is to gain a benefit, is not necessarily undue influence. Every contractual agreement involves some differing interests and the negotiation of a contract often involves advocating for differing interests. Similarly, even within families there are many instances where members of the family try to sway and influence each other in their decision making. Suppose for example, a family owns a 5th generation farm and the widow matriarch can no longer afford to maintain it. If she persuades her son or her son persuades her to pass the farm to him, where he will move to with his family to preserve it and care for her, these varying interests of the parties do not necessarily involve any undue influence.

To rise to the level of undue influence, the manipulation must be such that it essentially overpowers the free will of the person, leaving them with not much of a meaningful decision-making process and/or causing the decisions made to more reflect the will of the influencing party than the “decision maker” themselves.

Consider the example of the widow and the 5th generation farm, but this time, suppose her husband had died the week before and she was consumed with grief. If the son were to threaten to send her to an isolated nursing home if she did not immediately transfer the property to him outright, this would be undue influence.

Who is at Risk of Undue Influence in NJ?

Like the widow in our example above, some individuals can be particularly vulnerable to the influence of undue manipulation if they are ill, elderly, experiencing financial hardship, or in a fragile mental or emotional state. Conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s make an individual extremely vulnerable to undue influence and, in those situations, it is generally in the best interests of the vulnerable person for Power of Attorney over their financial affairs to be given a trusted loved one or fiduciary.

People who are grieving the loss of a loved one like a spouse or a child can also be very vulnerable to the undue influence of others, as well as anyone experiencing trauma or navigating a crisis. During these experiences, we do not always think clearly or make decisions that align with our best long-term interests. This vulnerable emotional state, which can feel like a surreal fog to many, makes it easy for a person with manipulative intentions to exploit the situation and apply undue influence to get someone to make a legal or financial situation that they wouldn’t normally make.

Distinguishing Normal Influence from Undue Influence

Distinguishing Normal Influence from Undue Influence in NJ Wills It’s important to be able to distinguish undue influence from normal influence and spot the warning signs of these manipulative tactics. One common red flag is a sudden, unexpected, and often significant change in a person’s will or financial decisions. Changing their will to add a new and unexpected beneficiary or make one individual a major or sole beneficiary, especially if this change is made when the testator is in a vulnerable state is a red flag that could indicate undue influence from an interested party is at play.

If a loved one has become withdrawn and is spending all of their time with one dominant influence in their life, with signs of controlling behavior involved in the relationship this is also a red flag.

In addition, unprecedented behaviors like secrecy or unusual and precedent decisions combined with the presence of a strong and dominant influence in a person’s life would also be a warning sign that they could be unduly influenced. For instance, if an elderly person with signs of early dementia changes their will to benefit a person they have known for a short time, but who has been spending a lot of time with the elderly individual and isolating them from family members and other friends, this is a definite red flag for undue influence.

Challenging Undue Influence in New Jersey Wills and Contracts

If other beneficiaries or family members believe that the manipulation of another party played a role in their loved one making a change to their will, they may contest the will based on undue influence. Undue influence can also be grounds to challenge the terms of a trust or a contract.

If there was a confidential relationship between the testator and the alleged influencer, which can include any fiduciary or familial relationship, and the circumstances are suspicious, then undue influence can be presumed. Suspicious circumstances can include a broad range of factors such as creating isolation between the testator and others, significant changes in the behavior of the testator, and any other sign that an individual was manipulated in any way. Factors that indicate that the testator was vulnerable to manipulation or undue influence are also very relevant.

Civil and Criminal Penalties for Undue Influence in NJ

Exerting undue influence on an individual in the context of estate planning or contracts can lead to civil and potentially criminal consequences. Civil liability for such actions can include invalidation of contracts and liability for resulting damages. It is also possible that instances of undue influence can warrant criminal charges from fraud to elder abuse, which can carry heavy fines and even jail time. Depending on the particular circumstances surrounding the undue influence, additional criminal charges could be applicable such as embezzlement or wire fraud.

Contact our West Long Branch NJ Legal Team if Your Loved One was Subject to Undue Influence

If you believe that a loved one may have been taken advantage of through the undue influence of an individual who manipulated them into changing their estate plan or entering into an unbeneficial contractual agreement, then you should contact an experienced estate litigation attorney to help you determine what recourse, if any, may be available. The first challenge will be to determine whether a presumption of undue influence can be established, given the facts of the case. Our team of estate lawyers at Chamlin, Uliano & Walsh has handled countless undue influence cases; we are knowledgeable about what facts must be established, and how to gather the necessary evidence to support your claim. We invite you to contact our team today to schedule a consultation regarding your case in Manasquan, Freehold, Red Bank, Howell, Neptune, Middletown, Wall, Long Branch, Rumson, and across Monmouth County and Ocean County. Call (732) 440-3950  or fill out our easy to use online form to learn more.