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Undue influence by step parents is a sensitive topic. The headline alone causes a reaction. Based on our experience, a stepmother is one of the most common perpetrators of undue influence. Whether real or perceived, we counsel clients frequently about the topic and regularly investigate these claims. We also investigate, prosecute, and defend undue influence cases against stepfathers. Let’s discuss.

 

Overview: Undue Influence By Stepmothers and Stepfathers

As with any estate, heirs and beneficiaries naturally are interested in how their family legacy will be distributed.  Couple this natural curiosity with the high emotions that come with the loss of a loved and a stepmother or stepfather who seems to be getting an unfair share and there is a natural tendency for the biological children, heirs and beneficiaries of the decedent to suspect wrongdoing. While this is common, it’s just as common for the majority of the estate to be left to the surviving spouse, i.e., the stepmother or stepfather, especially when the relationship was a long one. The bottom line is that you should trust your gut and hire counsel to help you examine whether your loved one was the victim of undue influence.

What’s the definition of undue influence in California?

Under California Welfare and Institutions Code § 15610.70, undue influence is defined broadly as “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.”

What are some examples of undue influence?

Per the American Bar Association, in determining whether a result was produced by undue influence, all of the following shall be considered:    

  • Vulnerability of the victim. Evidence of vulnerability may include, but is not limited to, incapacity, illness disability, injury, age, education, impaired cognitive function, emotional distress, isolation, or dependency where the influencer knew of, or should have known of, the alleged victim’s vulnerability.
  • The influencer’s apparent authority. Evidence of apparently authority may include but is not limited to, status as a fiduciary, family member, care provider, health care processional, legal professional, spiritual adviser, expert, or other qualification
  • The actions or tactics used by the influencer. Evidence of actions or tactics used may include, but is not limited to, all of the following:
  1. Controlling necessaries of life, medication, the victim’s interactions with others, access to information or sleep.         
  2. Use of affection, intimidation, or coercion. 
  3. Initiation of changes in person or property rights, use of haste or secrecy in effecting those changes, effecting changes at inappropriate time and places, and claims of expertise in effecting change.
  • The equity of the result. Evidence of the equity of the result may include, but is not limited to, the economic consequences to the victim, any divergence from the victim’s prior intent or course of conduct or dealing, the relationship of the value conveyed to the value of any services or consideration received, or the appropriateness of the change in light of the length and nature of the relationship. Evidence of an inequitable result, without more, is not sufficient to prove undue influence.”

What are specific examples of step parent undue influence?

In general, undue influence refers to situations wherein an abuser unduly influences a victim for the abuser’s own monetary gain. We protect clients from undue influence every day. In the case of trust and estate disputes, typically the stepchildren and/or heirs, claim that the stepmother’s undue influence resulted in a change in the will, trust, or estate plan, or that the stepmother received gifts the decedent would not have given her but for the undue influence. 

Example, a vacation home that had been left to the decedent’s child in a previous version of the will, was now left to the stepmother in an updated version of the will – not as a life estate, which would allow the step-parent to use the house during her life, but to her outright. In this case we would investigate whether the decedent’s children should contest that the stepmother used undue influence to convince the decedent to change the asset distribution in her favor. Here are examples of undue influence that we’ve seen, and successfully defended victims of:

Sexual Coercion

Restricting or threatening to restrict normal sexual relations can be an example of undue influence. 

Emotional Coercion

Restricting or threatening to restrict normal emotional support and normal kindness can be an example of undue influence.

Emotional Abuse

Emotionally abusive behavior may be considered undue influence. Example, making demeaning remarks that are only apologized for after financial concessions, may be considered undue influence.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse, or the threat of abuse, to gain financial concessions may be considered undue influence.

Care Restrictions

Refusing normal care for a spouse, or threatening to restrict normal care, to gain financial concessions, may be considered undue influence.

Financial Abuse

Taking property or restricting access to financial resources may be considered undue influence.

By the way, what is an estate dispute?

An estate dispute typically refers to any situation in which a decedent’s heirs or beneficiaries dispute the manner in which a decedent’s have been transferred or will be distributed pursuant to a will or trust.  More often than you may think, when a person dies, disputes exist about who should receive the decedent’s assets, ex. money, stocks, bonds, real property, jewelry, etc.

Estate disputes may referred to as:

  • Contesting a Trust or Trust Contests
  • Contesting a Will or Will Contests
  • Contesting an Estate, Estate Contests, Estate Conflicts, or Estate Disputes

 

Common reasons children sue step parents in estate disputes

In our experience, there is often an emotional volatility between the children of a deceased parent and the surviving spouse/stepmother/stepfather. While they may have had a cordial or even quasi-familial relationship prior to the passing of the parent, after death, issues associated with inheritance, estate distribution, and financial abuse are an unexpected surprise.

Commonly, the decedent’s children expected a particular inheritance, or distribution plan, in accordance with the will or trust and what their parent told them they would inherit. When the children’s expectations are not met, disputes naturally arise, especially when a non-family member inherits more than they “should.”

Many cases can be resolved through mediation, negotiated settlement or mandatory settlement conference, but usually only after claims have been thoroughly investigated and, often, only after litigation has been filed.  At RMO, we handle undue influence claims every day.

Do I need an estate litigation lawyer near me?

We recommend finding an experienced estate litigation attorney familiar with the county probate court in the county where the decedent lived. For example, if the children live in Florida, but the decedent lived in Los Angeles, we recommend working with a probate lawyer in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles probate lawyer will generally be more familiar with the Los Angeles Superior Court Probate Division, versus an out of state attorney.

 

Have questions? Call right now. It’s totally free.

(424) 320-9444

 

READ MORE

The Guide to Family Trust Embezzlement and Stealing

The Guide to Los Angeles Superior Court Probate Notes

Can I Contest My Parents’ Will in California?

Contesting a Trust: How Will My Family React?

 

About RMO Lawyers, LLP

RMO LLP serves clients in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Orange County, San Diego, Kansas City, Miami, and communities throughout California, Florida, Missouri and Kansas. Our founder, Scott E. Rahn has been named “Top 100 – Trust and Estate Litigation” by SuperLawyers, Trusts and Estates Litigator of the Year, and Best Lawyers in America for Litigation – Trusts and Estates. For a free consultation, call (424) 320-9444 or visit: https://rmolawyers.com

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