The deteriorating health of a loved one is difficult to cope with and accept under any circumstances. It often requires family members and close friends to step up and take on additional responsibility for the affairs of the ill person as that person’s condition worsens and the sick person is increasingly unable to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, some people see this situation solely as an opportunity for financial gain when the ill person has money or other valuable assets. It is from this situation that a legal claim of undue influence often arises.
When someone wrongfully manipulates a sick person into giving away or transferring their assets, either while they are living or upon their death, they are exercising undue influence upon the sick person. Undue influence may manifest itself in the physically or mentally unwell person being made to sign a will, power of attorney, deed, beneficiary designation or other document that is otherwise inconsistent with their intentions. Sometimes an ill person’s isolation or lack of ability to communicate may be preyed upon through the false and fraudulent representation to financial institutions and other third parties that the sick person has signed documents transferred or decided to transfer money or other assets when in fact they have not.
One of the difficult things about undue influence is that its presence is not always apparent until the ill person has passed away. Even if you observe another family member or person behaving suspiciously by suddenly inserting themselves into the life of a weakened or dependent loved one, you may not know the extent of the suspicious behavior. A person may actually perform necessary caretaking functions at the same time as they are taking advantage of a sick person’s weakened condition.
Furthermore, many people are very protective of their personal financial affairs. As such, the details of a loved one’s financial affairs are often unknown to many family members until death. At that time, their will may be submitted to probate and become a matter of public record. Or, in collecting a deceased loved one’s belongings, surviving family members may discover bank and financial records and learn of the designated beneficiaries for those accounts. When the contents of a will are surprising, or the distributions of accounts are unexpected, the reality that someone has exercised undue influence may finally become apparent.
Although there is no way to go back in time and intervene on behalf of your loved one, New Jersey Courts can undo damage and theft if evidence substantiates the exercise of undue influence.
To determine if you have a valid undue influence case, one must first consider how undue influence is defined and thus how a claim may be proven. New Jersey courts have defined the term "undue influence" as "mental, moral or physical exertion which has destroyed the free agency of [the sick person] by preventing the [sick person] from following the dictates of his own mind and will and accepting instead the domination and influence of another."
In New Jersey it is ordinarily presumed that the signer of a will, deed or other document transferring property had the “capacity”, or the legal ability to do so. In layman’s terms, it is assumed the person signing was “with it.” As a result, the burden of proving otherwise and/or that a signing was the product of undue influence is initially on the person challenging the will, deed or other instrument. See Haynes v. First Nat'l State Bank of N.J., 87 N.J. 163, 175-76 (1981)(quoting In re Livingston's Will, 5 N.J. 65, 71 (1950)). “That burden must be sustained by clear and convincing evidence." In re Hoover, 21 N.J. Super. 323, 325 (App. Div. 1952). This is a difficult standard of proof to satisfy.
The person claiming undue influence bears the initial burden of proof in New Jersey. However, the burden of proof shifts to the person accused of undue influence, and/or the person who is claiming the subject will or other document is valid, when the challenger supplies evidence of what is known as a “confidential” relationship between the sick person and the party accused of exercising undue influence and “additional circumstances of a suspicious character are present which require explanation." Id. at 176-177 (quoting In re Rittenhouse's Will, 19 N.J. 376, 378-79 (1955)).
In essence, a “confidential” relationship exists when the sick person comes to rely heavily upon the person accused of undue influence. Although not always a confidential relationship, a parent-child relationship often qualifies as a confidential relationship.
What counts as “suspicious circumstances” depends heavily on the unique facts of any given situation. Nonetheless, New Jersey courts have made clear “need be no more than slight.” In addition, proof of the confidential relationship and suspicious circumstances must only meet the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which is easier to satisfy than the “clear and convincing” standard. Once the burden of proof is shifted, a presumption of undue influence arises that the accused person must rebut.
Ultimately, every case is highly fact sensitive and requires detailed review by an attorney to determine its strength. Even then, the outcome is often impossible to predict due to the typically limited medical and financial records available before suit is filed.
The probate lawyers at the Law Office of Bart J. Klein, located in Maplewood, New Jersey, counsel clients regarding estate disputes and probate disputes, including will contests and challenges to the administration of estates. We appear in courts throughout New Jersey and welcome you to contact us for further information.
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