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Estate Litigation

Understanding Undue Influence and Estate Disputes in BC

British Columbians have the legal right to make decisions regarding their personal estates, including property and monetary gifts or transfers. Unfortunately, an estate owner may not always make the best decisions regarding their own affairs because of undue influence. In undue influence estate disputes, an individual disrupts an estate owner’s standard decision-making process through nefarious tactics. Understanding what undue influence is protects estate owners and their intended beneficiaries and helps those affected seek justice with the help of a lawyer.

What Is Undue Influence?

Undue influence in the context of estate planning describes circumstances where an estate owner faces external pressures from beneficiaries or other third parties to amend a will or trust, typically for the third party’s financial gain. Friends, family members, caregivers, and other parties are legally allowed to offer executors advice about the deceased’s estate and even encourage or beg them to make certain decisions. Undue influence becomes a factor only when an estate owner cannot act of their own volition or acts in ways inconsistent with their typical demeanour.

Undue influence elements include:

  • Coercion or Manipulation: Using tactics to pressure an estate owner into making changes to an estate that align with a third party’s personal interests rather than their own.
  • Isolation: Keeping an estate owner away from family, friends, or advisors who may have different perspectives or advice to share.
  • Exploitation of Vulnerability: Taking advantage of an estate owner’s physical or mental vulnerabilities to sway decisions about their estate.
  • Abuse of Trust: Leveraging the trust or authority held over an estate owner to gain control of their estate planning.

Undue Influence Examples

Undue influence can technically occur in any relationship. However, risks increase among relationships where there is a power imbalance between parties or where one party is particularly vulnerable. Scenarios involving domestic violence, elder abuse, predatory marriage, and guardianships are common examples.

For instance, undue influence could involve a caregiver isolating an elderly estate owner from their family and friends to create dependency, which can then be exploited in the caregiver’s favour. Another example would be a spouse threatening their significant other with harm if they don’t adhere to demands. It’s important to note that parties do not need to use the threat of physical harm for their actions to be considered undue influence.

Proving Undue Influence

To prove undue influence in estate litigation, legal teams must prove the person who was under another person’s influence behaved in a manner inconsistent with their typical, independent decision-making. It’s often not enough to simply demonstrate that an individual could commit undue influence. However, British Columbia does recognize the presumption of undue influence in relationships with a clear potential for dependence and dominance. These may include key figures like caregivers, spouses, advisors, parents, or guardians. In cases where there is a presumption of undue influence, the burden of proof lies on the accused to show that the presumed target acted of their own free will and thought concerning estate planning and transfers.