A Trust is a valuable estate planning tool which can allow a testator (i.e., a person who creates a trust to distribute trust assets after they pass) to avoid probate, exercise control over their assets, and provide financial security for loved ones. However, like any tool, trusts can sometimes be misused. Regrettably, some trusts fail to reflect the true wishes of the testator and instead reflect deception, manipulation, or coercion by a third party who wants to obtain unwarranted and undeserved financial windfalls for him or herself. Fortunately, the law provides an opportunity to rectify and correct the situation when a trust does not accurately reflect the true wishes and desires of the testator.
When a vulnerable person is pressured by a third party into creating or changing a trust in a way that results in the trust not reflecting their true wishes and desires, the trust can sometimes be set aside on account of “Undue Influence.” In order to show undue influence, a plaintiff (the person bringing a lawsuit) must prove four things. First, that there was a susceptible testator; second, that someone had the opportunity to exert improper influence upon the testator; third, that improper influence was exerted or attempted; and fourth, a result that shows the effect of such influence.
Consider the following example: As a testator enters old age, he begins to have trouble remembering things and managing his own finances. Maybe he has some physical ailments which make him more reliant on others for assistance with activities of daily life. A “friend” of the testator begins helping him run his household, including helping manage his money. The “friend” then convinces the testator to create a trust giving most of his assets to the “friend”—and leaving little for the testator’s spouse, children and/or grandchildren.
In the scenario above, the “friend”—who might more accurately be called the “villain” in this case—may feel that he has earned the additional assets of the testator by helping the testator look after his finances and assisting with household chores at the end of the testator’s life. However, the trust may actually be invalid, because a court could find that it was created as a result of undue influence.
In the situation described above, the court would apply a four-part test to determine whether the trust was invalid. The four-part test can be summarized as follows:
Was the testator susceptible to undue influence as a result of cognitive and/or physical deterioration and/or ailments?
Did the villain have the opportunity to exert improper, undue influence over the testator?
Did the villain actually exert or attempt to exert improper, undue influence over the testator?
Do the changes to the trust show the effect or result of the improper influence exerted (i.e., was the trust changed in a way that benefitted the "villain" as a consequence of the improper, undue influence exerted over the testator)?
A court could find that in the above situation, all four elements of undue influence were met and the trust was invalid and void.
There is another way to challenge the validity of a trust. In addition to challenging a trust on the basis of undue influence, a trust can be challenged on the basis that the testator lacked “testamentary capacity” when the trust was drafted and executed. This means that at the time the trust was created, the testator did not have the cognitive abilities to change his/her estate plan. If a court determines a testator lacked testamentary capacity at the time a trust was created or changed, the trust would be declared invalid.
When someone dies and there are indications a trust does not accurately reflect the testator’s true desires, the testator’s spouse, siblings, children, grandchildren, and/or other family members and friends can fight in probate court to have the trust overturned or reverted to a previous version.
In practice, it can be difficult for a person who is not familiar with the probate court and its complexities to successfully challenge the validity of a trust. Fortunately, a skilled probate attorney can help you understand your claim and bring the best possible argument before a probate court. If you suspect that a loved one’s trust does not reflect his or her true intentions, either because the trustor was improperly influenced by another person or lacked testamentary capacity, it is important for you contact an experienced probate litigation attorney to help ensure your loved one’s true last wishes are respected and honored.
Discuss your potential trust contest case with us by calling 614-389-9711. We'd love to help.
BRADEN A. BLUMENSTIEL, TRUST CONTENT ATTORNEY
The law gives Braden a pragmatic way to solve problems using his background in clinical psychology. He is a talented presenter in the courtroom, as he understands how to effectively question witnesses and relay information. He specializes in vaccine injury, personal injury, probate litigation, and business law, and has been recognized for his work by SuperLawyers.