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Undue Influence and Fraud

To prove that the Will was made under undue influence, one must show that a beneficiary exercised such influence over the maker of a Will so as to override the deceased’s true desires.There's no will without free will.  To prove that the Will was made under undue influence, one must show that a beneficiary exercised such influence over the maker of a Will so as to override the deceased’s true desires.  Although the law also requires strong evidence of undue influence, courts will consider evidence relating to (1) old age or illness; (2) whether the person signing the Will lived under the control and supervision of the beneficiary; (3) whether the Will replaced a prior Will; (4) whether the Will was made in favor of a non-relative; (5) whether family members were disinherited; and (6) whether the beneficiary hired a lawyer to draft the Will or otherwise arranged for its creation.

UNDUE INFLUENCE OVER MAKER OF LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT

Another common basis for challenging a will is if it was obtained by the use of undue influence on the maker. Wills obtained as a result of undue influence are invalid. Undue influence means domination or influence exercised to such an extent that the maker was prevented from exercising free judgment and choice. The influence must manifest itself as force or coercion, and must be exerted at the time the will was executed.

Maryland has not established a bright line standard for acts that constitute undue influence. Indeed, the case law carefully balances the important function of people who care for testators near the end of their lives in a natural and altruistic way, and people in like circumstances who abuse this confidential relationship. A confidential or illicit relationship between testator and beneficiary, while relevant, is insufficient alone to establish undue influence. Proof of domination, or manipulation and coercion as a result of this influence is required.

In Moore v. Smith, the Court of Appeals identified seven elements characteristic of the existence of undue influence. While the presence of one or more of these elements are not sufficient to establish undue influence, they are relevant evidence, and depending on the strength of evidence with respect to one or more element, a finder of fact may conclude that undue influence was exhibited on the maker. The elements are:

  • the maker and beneficiary, or other person alleged to have exhibited undue influence, are involved in a relationship of confidence and trust;
  • the will contains substantial benefit to the beneficiary;
  • the beneficiary caused or assisted in effectuating execution of the will;
  • there was an opportunity to exhibit influence;
  • the will contains unnatural disposition;
  • the bequests constitute significant deviation from a former will;
  • the maker was highly susceptible to undue influence.

As with insane delusions, only the portions of the will affected by the undue influence are invalid. For example, a person exhibiting undue influence may covet a certain item or property of the testator. This often involves a testator’s home. If the caveator can prove that the person exerting the undue influence coveted the maker’s home, dominated or coerced her in such a way that resulted in the creation of a will bequeathing that home to him, the remainder of the will is not invalid.

FRAUD IN THE CREATION OF THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT

A will, or provision of a will, is not valid if a false representation was made to the maker by someone who knew it was false, intended to deceive the maker, and in fact did deceive the maker by affecting her judgment or choice. Fraud differs from undue influence in that it involves the maker voluntary acting, but relying on false and deceitful information, whereas with undue influence the will of another person is being substituted for the maker’s. Common instances of fraud are when the maker did not know that she was executing a will, or was misled or deceived as to the provisions of the will.

Like undue influence, there is not a bright line test to establish the existence of fraud. However, the Court has offered guidelines of elements characteristic of the presence of fraud:

  • willful false statements of fact made to the testator;
  • the statements were made by the beneficiary of the fraudulently procured will;
  • the statements were intended to deceive the testator;
  • the testator was deceived;
  • the statements induced the testator to make the will; and
  • the testator would not have made the will but for the false statements.

As with the other grounds for contesting a will, fraud does not invalidate the entire will, unless the remainder is affected by the fraud, or the fraudulently procured portion may not be separated in a way that leaves the remainder complete and intelligible.

The legal information on undue influence, Maryland will caveat lawsuits contesting fraud, duress and coercion over the deceased, forcing the ill and elderly to sign wills, taking advantage of the deceased, probate litigation over fraudulent procurement of wills and unnatural distribution of assets, is designed for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Readers are advised to seek the representation of competent probate litigation attorneys Maryland estate planning lawyers to protect their legal rights. The slogans, High-Speed Access to Legal Action, Legal Advice, Legal Counsel, Legal Protection, State & Federal Courts, Dispute & Conflict Resolution, Probate Protection, Legal News, Legal Training & Seminars, and the substantial equivalent thereof are service marks of Kramer & Connolly.