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    Undue Influence, the Series

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    An Undue Influence estate case could easily be the next big FX show, picking up right where The People vs. OJ Simpson left off. Or, I can easily envision a weekly show – CSI-like – where a team of intrepid investigators are brought in by disinherited families to prove undue influence.

    The definition of undue influence:

    Mental, moral, or physical domination (even if natural or right) that deprives a person of independent judgment and substitutes another person’s objectives in place of his or her own. Exercise of undue influence is characterized often by excessive insistence, superiority of physical power, mind, or will, or pressure applied due to authority, position, or relationship in relation to the strength of the person submitting to it.

    conjures up all kinds of plotlines. Indeed, shows like Law & Order have touched on undue influence more than once.

    When the public runs across undue influence cases they tend to be sensationalistic. Say ‘will’, ‘undue influence’, and ‘huge estate’, to any ten people who have been to a grocery store in the last twenty years and at least nine of them will name a case that fits the definition above simply from having read the headlines of The National Enquirer.

    J. Howard Marshall in better days.
     J. Howard Marshall in better days.

    Of those nine, nine will cite Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall, the Texas oil tycoon. This is, of course, a spectacular case for the tabloids; come to think of it, it’s a spectacular case for regular media. A 26-year-old stripper/Playboy Centerfold marrying an 87-year-old billionaire is sensationalistic on its face, that the marriage ended after fourteen months with Marshall’s death just added to its luster.

    What makes this case really compelling (okay, more compelling) is the fact that the undue influence here was alleged against Marshall’s son, not Smith. He was accused of steering his father toward disinheriting Anna Nicole.

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    Great drama, perfect for our series.

    The thing about undue influence, however, is that in the real world of real people it’s seldom sensational. It’s seldom even all that obvious at first glance. The results sometimes are – family members inexplicitly cut out of estates at the last minute; the mechanics of how it happened are not.

    Take for example a case out of Washington State that was widely reported over the last few weeks – not on the front pages of People magazine, but it’s easy to find. Simply, a woman in her nineties executed a new will months before her death leaving her estate, comprised of about 50 acres of property on Puget Sound that had been in her family for over one hundred years, to her mail carrier.

    That a Postal worker inherited the property probably accounts for the fact this made the news in the first place. The family immediately sued, it took five years but they finally prevailed in the Washington State Supreme Court.

    The Property in Washington, the family were the original pioneers.
    The Property in Washington, the family were the original pioneers.

    The crux of the decision was based on the finding that the mail carrier exerted undue influence over the woman. The details are about as non-sensational as one can get. But, they pile up and in a damning way – cutting off email, changing a phone plan and not informing the family, whispering gossip, subtlety running down family members and creating rifts – ‘fanning the flames of family discourse’ was how the court put it.

    There’s a lot more to it, of course, but, perhaps, a consultant from an Arizona law firm brought in by the Washington Supreme Court summarized it best: it is natural for people to want to include their caregivers in their wills, however, such gifts are always suspect because of the position of trust and power that the caregiver holds over the senior.

    This isn’t the stuff of a TV series that anyone will watch, but it is something we deal with every day.   If you would like to talk with a member of our team about your situation, please schedule a consultation with our office.

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