Using Summary Judgment to Fight Undue Influence

Using Summary Judgment to Fight Undue InfluenceAccording to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, 27% of U.S. adults aged 60 or older live alone, compared to an average of 16% in the rest of the 130 countries included in the study. With a desire for independence, many of these solitary residents turn towards caregivers as a way to remain somewhat independent with occasional assistance. These caregivers are given a unique opportunity to interact with their patients, and have some level of control over them, through services like delivering medicine, providing food, or being their only regular source of contact. This can create an unhealthy dependency that creates an opportunity for malicious caregivers. 

Undue influence is the act of using power over another individual to unduly influence their actions, or in our case, to influence the contents of their will, and become a beneficiary. Possibly due to the significantly larger than average population of elderly residents living on their own, the United States is facing a rise in the number of undue influence cases being brought to probate; forcing probate attorneys to use whatever means necessary to protect the families of decedents from further harm.

By default, the will would be taken through probate as-is. However, probate attorneys may be able to flip the burden of proof, forcing a caregiver to demonstrate that they did not commit undue influence. To do this, they need to prove three prongs: 

  • That the alleged had the opportunity to exercise undue influence;
  • That they benefited from the document in question, and, most importantly;
  • That there is a fiduciary relationship between the beneficiary caregiver and their patient.

Both of the first two prongs are satisfied by the fact that they were a caretaker who had plenty of time alone with their patient, and that we’re fighting them in probate, so they likely benefited somehow. The most important is the third prong, but it may also be the most difficult to prove. Previous cases have established that a formal agency such as power of attorney is evidence of a fiduciary relationship, but that may not be necessary. In other cases, it was accepted that a fiduciary relationship has been established if the decedent put a significant amount of trust into the caretaker accused of undue influence.

With this, we’ve effectively flipped the burden of proof onto the accused, forcing them to prove that they did not unduly influence the decedent. In cases where there is clear evidence of unduly influence, such as video footage of them pressuring the decedent into changing their will, the next step is clear.

Enter summary judgment, a critical tool for punishing the purveyors of undue influence. Because the accused likely has no evidence to prove that they did not act with undue influence, summary judgement can be applied to end the case before it even goes to trial. Once it’s clear that there was undue influence, and the burden of proof has been flipped, moving to summary judgement can bring a swift end to the case. 

This isn’t just a fanciful story – Ledwidge & Associates have used this exact strategy to win probate cases for our clients before. We’re committed to protecting our clients and their families from these malicious actors. If you’re in need of experienced representation for your probate case, contact us today.

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Using Summary Judgment to Fight Undue Influence

Ledwidge & Associates

Ledwidge & Associates, P.C. in New York City has years of experience helping clients create estate plans that fit their needs. We have the experience and resources to handle your critical legal matters with the utmost care and attention to detail.