Many folks are curious about how estate dispute attorneys test undue influence lawsuits and how they determine whether circumstances are practical enough to bring an action to trial.
After litigating and defending hundreds of undue influence claims for more than a decade, the counselors at iowaprobatelitigaton.com have learned that some undue influence claims are just not worth pursuing even when they look appealing at first glance.
Our organization believes the lawsuit’s legal and non-legal issues must merge amiably and collectively come together in order to obtain a favorable verdict from a jury or judge. This practice further ensures clients won’t have to pay a fortune to take back their hijacked inheritances.
Check out our process for checking undue influence claims and discover if our approach can help you figure out whether your will dispute is pursuable.
Weigh the Evidence Against Each Element in the Claim
Estate attorneys must first and foremost discover whether their client holds a compelling prima facie case of undue influence. They accomplish this by scrutinizing the evidence at hand and weighing its effectiveness against each element of undue influence and against potential rebuttals the defendant may assert at trial.
The Iowa Supreme Court has held that interested parties (or defendants—if the burden of proof shifts to them) must show by a preponderance of the evidence that:
- The decedent was vulnerable to undue influence.
- The defendant held the opportunity to exercise influence.
- The defendant was willing to influence the decedent in exchange for taking an improper favor from the decedent’s estate.
- The defendant’s dominant position over the decedent’s intent caused the decedent to create or change his or her testamentary documents.
- The defendant clearly received a substantial benefit from the trust or will.
An action will fail before a trial even begins if any one of the above five elements lacks evidentiary proof.
Mike depended on Sharon to pay his bills and care for him. Mike’s will enters probate where his five sons learn their dad left them nothing but conveyed 100% of his estate to Sharon.
Here, the court will assume Sharon held a dominant position over Mike through a confidential relationship and held the freedom to influence him. Sharon also clearly received a substantial benefit from the estate during probate.
But does the challenger in this case have evidence showing Mike was sufficiently weak and vulnerable to succumb to Sharon’s influence? How can the claimant prove Sharon willingly influenced Mike into disinheriting his sons?
Obviously, medical records showing Mike was mentally impaired or witness testimony revealing Mike did everything that Sharon told him to do would strengthen the elements in this case.
You should establish minimum evidentiary grounds for each part of the claim. If your case loses steam as you prove up the elements, you’ll apparently have a weak prima facie case in your hands.
Study the Economics of the Case
Cost-effectiveness is a non-legal issue to look at when deciding if an undue influence case is worth pursuing—the value of a potential favorable judgment must always significantly exceed what the client will pay in legal fees and expenses to win the case.
Estate attorneys new to probate litigation sometimes make the mistake of pursuing complicated undue influence claims on a contingent fee basis without first considering the time investment required to win the lawsuit.
Experienced will dispute lawyers may contrarily lose opportunities to pursue strong undue influence challenges because they reject the lawsuits before studying the economics of the case, which may disclose a massive incentive to litigate an action on contingency.
Interested parties who pay hourly for legal services should likewise consider whether the remedies they seek justify the investment it will take to achieve a favorable verdict.
Always do the math first before pursuing an undue influence claim.
Evaluate Everyone’s Conduct and Attitudes
The credibility and demeanor of the claimant(s) are other non-legal issues that one must consider as well—justice is not always blind to those with terrible social skills who bring legal action to court.
Remember that the manner in which people present themselves at trial absolutely influences judges and juries and that likable plaintiffs will often appear more credible to the fact-finders than not.
Lawyers also dislike undue influence cases where sibling rivalries exist between defendants and interested parties that are looking to settle scores. Contrarily, when will dispute attorneys recognize the defendant holds an unflattering personality, they can capitalize on their opponent’s unfavorable demeanor during trial by influencing the jury into disfavoring the defendant’s testimony.
Test the sincerity, candor and integrity of will challengers and defendants before agreeing to pursue undue influence claims. If you should find arrogant, critical or greedy participants, knock a few points off the entire evaluation.
Assess Witness Testimony for Credibility Issues
Probate litigators know the fact finders will listen very carefully to what witnesses have to say and observe the manner in which they say it. Such careful scrutiny is why undue influence lawsuits that lack credible and convincing witness testimony mostly fail.
Strong undue influence lawsuits accordingly should hold at least two material witnesses who observed the daily interactions between the deceased and the defendant. Their testimony should further—attest to the deceased’s testamentary capacity; confirm a confidential relationship existed among parties: or describe the influence the defendant held over the deceased.
Also know that testimony from professional witnesses such as healthcare workers, bank officials or caregiver staff offers the courts compelling credibility, since these third-party individuals are generally neutral and have no interest in a favorable verdict.
Testimony from friends, neighbors, and family members may also significantly change the outcome of cases, but only if the jury or judge can see past any unfavorable demeanor qualities they hold.
Remember also that you will only call on third-party witnesses to provide reliable testimony of which should never include inferences of settling personal vendettas with the defendant.
Study Medical Records to Find Evidence of Mental Impairment
Medical records can establish the descendant’s vulnerability or susceptibility to undue influence. Most challengers won’t have direct access to the deceased’s healthcare files, but probate litigators can subpoena the information if they believe it will help their client’s case.
Estate dispute attorneys should therefore examine whether decedents regularly visited doctors or specialists before passing away or whether they took medications to treat a mental impairment.
Did the descendent have Alzheimer’s, memory loss, or suffer from dementia?—if the answer is yes, and medical records support this finding, the lawsuit readily becomes stronger to pursue.
Merge Your Findings into a Final Analysis
Examine the economics in the case and determine whether it’s appropriate to move forward. If so, assess the lawsuit’s prima facie strength, non-legal issues and medical evidence objectively and collectively.
If one area is weak, consider if the strength from another component can make up for the lost ground.
Mike’s sons want to file an undue influence claim, but each claimant appears arrogant and mean when presenting their case. If overwhelming evidence indicates that Mike suffered from dementia while in Sharon’s care, the claimants’ shortcomings may be unimportant to a jury.
Finally, ask yourself whether a reasonable jury would believe undue influence took place. This is actually the most important question to consider when deciding whether or not to pursue an undue influence case.