Proving undue influence when a loved one makes a last-minute change to their will in NJ

In 2018, the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld a decision that a daughter, who inherited only 10% of her father’s residuary estate after his death, could not establish that her father was under undue influence when he signed the most recent version of his will. In his original will, the father divided his estate 50/50 between his two children. Less than a year before his death, her father changed his will, decreasing the daughter’s share significantly while leaving 80% of the residuary estate to her brother. For that reason, the daughter alleged that her brother exerted undue influence and convinced their father to change his will while his health declined.

New Jersey case law dictates that a court will find undue influence and shift the burden of proof to the will proponent only if both of the following elements are met: (1) existence of a confidential relationship between the testator and the will proponent and (2) suspicious circumstances. If only one of the two elements is established, undue influence will not be presumed, and the burden will not shift.

Here, the Court found evidence that indicated the father was strong-willed, even during the last year of his life as his health declined. The evidence supported the conclusion the father acted freely and independently when he signed the new will. Also, several individuals testified that the father was unlikely to be influenced by anyone. Further, it was evident that the father and daughter had several disagreements prior to his death, which resulted in a strained relationship. There was a prior legal dispute regarding the use of their shared driveways. On a separate occasion, the father loaned his daughter money and believed that the loan was never repaid. Generally, the father tried to avoid his daughter prior to the execution of his new will.

However, the Court did still find that there were suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of the father’s new will. Notably, the father did not ask his usual attorney to draft the new will; instead, the brother suggested that one of his friends could handle it. The father agreed to work with his son’s friend. Further, there was no evidence establishing how the father got to and from the appointment with his son’s friend in order to execute the new will.

Despite the Court’s finding that suspicious circumstances did exist, the Court ultimately held that the daughter did not have a claim because the first element – the existence of a confidential relationship between the testator and the will proponent – was not established. The facts indicated that the father changed his will of his own accord.

If you or someone else suspects a will change was the result of undue influence, it must be established that both a confidential relationship existed between testator and the will proponent and that the circumstances were suspicious. Even if there are suspicious circumstances, the evidence must also prove that the testator was capable of being influenced by another individual. If you seek to challenge a will under N.J.S.A. 3B:3-22, the deadline to challenge in New Jersey is 4 months and the deadline outside the state of New Jersey is 6 months. Additionally, if you are a named beneficiary in a will, you should always request a copy of that will.

If you have additional questions about this case, wills and estates, or any other legal matter, please feel free to contact Ward, Shindle and Hall. There is no charge for consultations.