Ohio Probate Cases Where Wills Are Contested Because of Undue Influence

contest a willSometimes a will is read or notice of a will is given to interested parties and those parties begin to question the contents of the will.

Did Aunt Mary really mean to give the majority of her assets to a neighbor who helped with her care?

Did she mean to forego any bequests to family members?

It may be time to take strong suspicions to probate court if you may have a case of exertion of undue influence.

Who Can Challenge or Contest a Will?

You must have “standing” to contest a will in Ohio. This means you have some financial interest in the estate of the deceased such as you are a direct heir who would have received something by law if the deceased would have passed away without a will.

Another example of someone with “standing” would be if the deceased was your parent and all his or her other children received a certain portion of the estate and you received significantly less without any explanation as to why this had occurred.

You must also have “grounds” to contest a will or a reason supported by law to contest the document. Perhaps you are able to prove the testator was not of sound mind when he or she executed the will, or you may be able to show some procedural error, or that the will is a fake or forgery. It is possible the will submitted to probate was revoked at an earlier time and is not valid. All of these would be grounds to challenge a will.

In the case of Aunt Mary and the neighbor it is likely being claimed that Aunt Mary (the testator) succumbed to outside influence and this influence was so strong it overtook the will of the person preparing his or her will, in this case Aunt Mary.

The general factor that courts look at when determining whether undue influence existed is the testator’s intent. If the transfer of the testator’s assets were not natural and not consistent with prior statements of intent, if they do not appear to be the independent decision of the will maker, the challenger may have a case for undue influence.

In Ohio and many other states, the challenger must prove four elements to win his case. He or she must show:

1) the testator was “susceptible” – capable of being improperly influenced

2) that there was another party who had the opportunity to influence the susceptible testator

3) that there was an actual imposition of undue influence and

4) there was a result showing the effect of the undue influence.

If the person contesting the will can show these four factors existed and the probate court finds the testator was improperly influenced, forced or tricked into making or changing his or her will, the document will likely be found to be invalid.

Influencer May Foster Special Relationship

Many times the influencer will have a special or “confidential” relationship with the testator – they are the testator’s nurse, a caretaker, attorney, agent or a close family member. This relationship gives that person the opportunity to be a more active participant in making the will. This person may even live with the testator who may be weak and vulnerable and easily manipulated.

But the frail testator and the overzealous caretaker is not always the scenario. A person of any age who is having physical or mental difficulties may be susceptible to undue influence. Unusual or unexpected disbursements of property to beneficiaries who would be considered unlikely heirs is one clue that something untoward may have occurred.

In addition to a special relationship, a person who is exercising undue influence will often:

• Try to be present when the testator discusses his or her intentions concerning his or her will

• Recommend an estate planning attorney to draft the will

• Have knowledge of the contents of the will

• Give the attorney instructions about the will

• Secure witnesses for the will

• Urge any necessary changes in the will’s language to strongly favor himself over others

• Urge that the will be changed in secret and/or as quickly as possible

• Exclude other relatives or friends from participating in meetings with the estate planning attorney

• Participate heavily in the drafting of a will

• Take possession of the will after its execution

Be aware that someone else’s general influence over the testator is not sufficient to invalidate a will if the other factors do not apply and there is no indication that disbursements are unusual. The law does not presume that a person making a will would want to leave his or her assets to relatives.

It can be difficult to win an undue influence lawsuit. The person who you need most to come to court and testify as to their reasons and motivations for writing their will the way they did is unable to be present because they are deceased. You must rely on witnesses – people who knew the testator well – doctors or other healthcare providers, family members, caregivers, lawyers who may all be called to testify about what they know about the relationship between the deceased person and the person charged with exerting undue influence.

How Much Time Does One Have To Contest a Will?

In Ohio, to contest a will, you must file a civil lawsuit with the probate court in the county in which the will is being probated. You must notify all other “interested parties” of the proceeding.

They should have already been notified about the will when it was introduced to probate and the executor was appointed. But they must be notified of any contest to the document – this means all beneficiaries and heirs, the executor of the estate and Ohio’s attorney general. The person contesting has the burden of proof to show the will is not valid and fair. He or she may call and question any witnesses to support his case.

Once a will is accepted into probate, you have three months to contest it.

If you’re concerned about a vulnerable relative being taken advantage of, act now to prevent abuse so you don’t have to file a lawsuit in the future. If your family member isn’t able to make rational decisions (including estate planning decisions), go to court and get a guardian or conservator. Even a person who has a guardian may be able to execute a valid will if he or she is lucid at the time of executing it and if he or she fully understands the magnitude of his or her assets and can identify his or her next of kin.

What Are The Remedies If Undue Influence is Proven?

If it is found that the will is not the true intention of the testator due to undue influence, the court will usually conclude the document is invalid. All the property and assets that were within the will are then distributed using the state’s intestate succession system. This means it will be as though a will did not exist and assets will be distributed to next of kin according to law.

However, if there was a will prior to the prior to the executed will which was deemed invalid, the court will distribute assets according to that will.

Do I Need an Attorney?

An irregularity or other matter that could invalidate a will can be a complex matter and can be difficult to prove to the probate court in order to have the issue remedied. You will need the assistance of an experienced probate attorney to help you decide whether you should file a complaint contesting the will and also to help you determine what is the basis of your complaint and what witnesses you will need to support it.

For further information about undue influence and other types of will contests, please contact our law firm by calling 1-888-467-5105, chat with one of our 24-hour live chat representatives or send us a website message. Our Ohio probate litigation attorneys will provide you with a free and private consultation to discuss your case. A free consultation is just that – free. There is no cost or any obligation to hire our law firm.

If the will has entered probate, you have limited time – three months – to file a lawsuit, so you should keep this in mind.

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