Undue Influence in Drafting a Will
One popular reason a will or other "testamentary document," which is prepared to distribute assets after a death, could be found invalid is the presence of undue influence. Undue influence involves someone exerting an improper power or coercion over someone else in the drafting of his will, for his or her own gain. Generally, the party looking to invalidate the will has to show that undue influence was present. But certain circumstances are considered suspicious, so the person looking to enforce to document has to prove the absence of undue influence. One of these circumstances may involve a person who acted as a power of attorney for the person who has passed directly or indirectly benefiting from the distribution of assets, according to the testamentary documents.
In a recent case, the Matter of the Estate of Mallas, a husband and wife couple appealed from a lower court order that required the wife to disgorge, or give back, any funds she received from their neighbor's estate after he passed. The neighbor, William Mallas, appointed the husband a power of attorney before he died. He also signed a new will naming the wife as his beneficiary and later, signed another testamentary document which appointed the husband as the executor of his estate.
The trial court looked at Mallas's final actions concerning his estate and found that the power of attorney, the will which benefited the wife and the document naming the husband the executor of the estate, were all valid. BUT, the court held that the husband and wife did not prove the absence of undue influence.
This was necessary in this case because of the "suspicious circumstance" in which the wife was the direct beneficiary of Mallus's estate. The court found that there was a confidential relationship in which the husband acted as power of attorney and executor of Mallus's estate. It even noted that the husband and wife's medical witness testified that Mallus was incapable of understanding the action benefitting the wife, nor did he have his own lawyer to advise him of his actions.
With no evidence to show that there was no undue influence, the court ordered the wife to disgorge the benefits she received from Mallus's estate. It further required that the beneficiary of Mallus's estate be changed to another person.
Angela Yu is a New Jersey and New York attorney with a multifaceted practice area focusing in corporate, real estate and general contract law. She uses her interest in real life application of the law to author articles and other scholarship on a broad range of cutting-edge legal and business topics. Ms. Yu is a published legal author and holds a J.D. and M.B.A. from Rutgers School of Law and Rutgers Business School. Neither she nor Mike Farhi provides legal advice on this website. This blog post and any blog posts do not constitute legal advice.