The traditional “Nuclear Family” has become less prevalent over the past several decades as blended families increasingly become a norm in modern Western society. However, it may present some complex family dynamics. Although each blended family is unique, there is often emotional volatility between the children of a deceased parent and the surviving stepparent. What happens if the surviving stepparent seems to be getting an unfair share and the beneficiaries suspect wrongdoing — Trust and Estate Litigation!
What Is Trust and Estate Litigation?
Every person leaves an estate when they pass away. The estate’s assets typically include cars, homes, cash, and investments. If a trust was created prior to death, and the Settlor (creator of the trust) properly transferred their assets to the trust, then the Trustee (person or entity responsible for managing the trust) will administer and distribute the trust’s assets in accordance with the terms of the trust. Trusts are meant to be private, however, when a trust is the subject of a dispute and is attached as an exhibit, it becomes available to the public. Trust disputes can be a long, emotional, and costly nightmare for everyone involved.
The “wicked stepmother” phenomenon in trust and estate disputes largely traces to the life expectancy gap between men and women in the United States. Widowed females far outnumber widowed males by 11.48 million females to 3.7 million males as of 2022. Indeed, our culture’s literature and media are saturated with stereotypical depictions of stepmothers acting jealous, petty, and greedy. Although a sizeable number of trust and estate fights involve stepmothers and the surviving children of the deceased, the reality of trust and estate litigation transcends gender.
Common Reasons for Disputes
Issues associated with inheritance, estate distribution, and financial abuse may arise after death, despite the cordial or even familial relationship between the children of a deceased parent and the surviving stepparent. Based upon prior distribution plan conversations with their parent, the decedent’s children may expect a particular inheritance. However, if their expectations are not met, disputes are likely to arise. This is especially true if the children receive inequitable inheritance promises and the surviving stepparent receives more than they “should.”
In our experience, the decedent’s children are most apt to wage undue influence claims against the surviving stepparent especially if their biological parent and stepparent had a short-term marriage or their biological parent experienced mental capacity issues prior to their passing. In the case of trust and estate disputes, the children and/or heirs typically claim that the stepparent’s undue influence resulted in a change of the trust or estate plan.
Undue Influence in California
The California Supreme Court defines undue influence as “pressure brought to bear directly on the testamentary act, sufficient to overcome the testator’s free will, amounting in effect to coercion destroying the testator’s free agency.” Rice v. Clark, 47 P.3d 300, 304 (Cal. 2002). Additionally, California Welfare and Institutions Code § 15610.70 includes “excessive persuasion” in the definition of undue influence.
The following factors must be considered in determining whether undue influence has occurred:
- The 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, and whether the influencer knew or should have known of the alleged victim’s vulnerability.
- The influencer’s apparent authority. Evidence of apparent authority may include, but is not limited to, status as a fiduciary, family member, care provider, health care professional, legal professional, spiritual advisor, 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:
- Controlling necessaries of life, medication, the victim’s interactions with others, access to information, or sleep.Use of affection, intimidation, or coercion.
- Initiation of changes in personal or property rights, use of haste or secrecy in effecting those changes, effecting changes at inappropriate times and places, and claims of expertise in effecting changes.
- 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 certain length and nature of the relationship.
- Evidence of an inequitable result, without more, is not sufficient to prove undue influence.
Many cases involving trust disputes can be resolved through mediation or negotiated settlement, but usually only after claims have been thoroughly investigated and, often, only after litigation has commenced. Courts are reluctant to invalidate testamentary documents unless there is a compelling reason to do so. And you cannot contest a trust based on undue influence merely because you were dissatisfied with who is getting what, and, if the trust has a “no contest clause” you run the risk of losing whatever inheritance you are about to receive.
To properly navigate the complexities and procedures involved in trust litigation, we recommend retaining an experienced trust and estate litigation attorney familiar with the laws and county probate court rules in the county where the decedent lived.
RJS LAW, has a team of experienced lawyers ready to assist you. If you believe undue influence impacted a will or trust, or you are seeking to protect a loved one from future undue influence, we will provide first-rate legal representation and work tirelessly to protect your inheritance rights. For a no obligation free consultation, please call today at (619) 595-1655 or fill out the contact form on the right side of the page.
Written by Melanie Chan