Helping Families Navigate the Financial Challenges of Age Transitions

Tag: undue influence

Court of Appeals Affirms That Will Was Product of Undue Influence

The Law Firm of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, recently published the trial court results of a case involving a charge of Undue Influence brought by the two adult children of William Moriarty.

Mr. Moriarty was widowed in April 2016. William had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and congestive heart failure following Doreen’s death. Eve, who had been married three times previously and had met William while Doreen was alive, began dating him within weeks after Doreen’s death.

Afterward, Cathy and Paula noticed a marked change in their relationship with their father, though they did not learn of his and Eve’s relationship until soon before they were married. Eve and William married about seven months after Doreen’s death, and neither Cathy nor Paula were invited to, or attended, the wedding.

From firing William’s caregiver to procuring a new will for him through her own lawyer, Eve also was named as joint owner of a new, large home purchase shortly after their marriage, as well as of a new $60,000 Lexus.

Relying on an expert witness, the court determined that William’s physical and psychological impairments made him vulnerable to undue influence.

The trial court was convinced that Eve exercised undue influence over William due to multiple facts presented at trial, including the dramatic shift in his estate plan only one month before his death and Eve’s involvement in procuring his will and surrendering his life insurance policy. The trial court was less than impressed with Eve’s demeanor in court, noting her “flat affect during emotional testimony,” which left the court “with no confidence that Eve married William because she loved him and with the conclusion that Eve planned to take all of William’s money all along.”

Ultimately, the trial court declared that the purported will was invalid due to William’s lack of capacity and Eve’s undue influence over him, and it ordered that William’s estate be distributed as if he had died intestate.

The court also ordered Eve to transfer title of bank accounts, the house and the car — all of which she otherwise would have received as a joint owner — to William’s estate.

Source: Court of Appeals Affirms That Will Was Product of Undue Influence | Publications | Insights | Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP

What is Undue Influence?

Ellis Hanson was once a brilliant engineer who was partially responsible for the development of computer typesetting that made him a wealthy man upon his retirement. He and his wife, Velta, purchased their retirement home in Naples Florida and he did well in the stock market, investing his money well. By the early 2000s, however, his cognitive abilities were declining, and the couple turned to a banker to handle their finances. On September 30th  2008, Hanson pulled a small piece of paper out of his pocket and stared at it blankly. Not understanding what it was, he asked his wife to look. It was a receipt for a $260 lunch in Naples.

Velta Hanson was surprised. Her then- 84-year-old husband, a brilliant engineer in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, had no recollection of eating there hours earlier. Velta Hanson hired a private investigator. But days before receiving his report, she found a letter revealing her husband had written a $10,000 check to a friend of two decades, Alma Teti. That was the day she asked her husband if she could take over their finances. It turned out that was just a fraction of what Ellis Hanson had given Teti. In addition to the lunch, there was also more than $1 million in checks from 2006 to 2008, nearly $85,000 in jewelry since 2005, including a $26,000 blue stone ring for her birthday, and thousands in expensive lunches, champagne and drinks.

In 2009, the couple sued Teti, alleging exploitation of a vulnerable adult and conversion of personal funds, illegally depriving the Hansons of their property. Florida law defines a vulnerable adult as someone 18 or older whose ability to perform the normal activities of daily living or provide his or her own care or protection is impaired due to a mental, emotional, long-term physical or developmental disability or dysfunction, brain damage or infirmities of aging. A three-day jury trial resulted in a judgment of over $2 Million against Teti.[1]

The means by which Alma Teti committed her offense is often referred to as Undue Influence. Undue Influence is the misuse of one’s role and power to exploit the trust, dependence, and fear of another to deceptively gain control over that person’s decision in a particular matter. Along with capacity and consent, Undue Influence is a key concept in elder law. Capacity and consent relate primarily to an individual’s abilities to understand and process information in order to take action or to make decisions. Undue Influence focuses more on the relationship between the individual and another person, coupled with that person’s opportunity and power to manipulate the vulnerable person’s thoughts and actions. An older person may be more vulnerable to Undue Influence because he or she has diminished capacity, or the person has become isolated from trustworthy family and friends.

The legal standard for Undue Influence has been defined as influence that amounts to deception, force or coercion that destroys a person’s free agency.[2] Undue Influence arises most predominantly in probate, trust and estates, power of attorney and guardianship matters. Undue Influence typically is not itself a crime, but it can be a means for committing a crime.

Undue Influence can take on other, more subtle behaviors as well. For example, the following may constitute Undue Influence if the resulting actions deprive an older person of their free agency in making a decision:

  1. An adult child threatens to stop visiting her elderly mother unless she gives her the silver dinnerware that she had been promised.
  2. A new companion convinces an older man to give her power of attorney because his children never come to see him and don’t care for him like she does.
  3. A representative of a religious ministry regularly visits an elderly shut-in and convinces her to make a large donation to the ministry after he assures her that “God will bless her abundantly” if she makes a sacrificial gift.

What’s important to remember about Undue Influence are the position of power that one individual may hold over another because of the relationship between them, and the opportunity to misuse that power through manipulation.  Here are a few tips to guard our elderly loved ones against Undue Influence.

  1. Avoid social isolation. When an older person has an active social life around lots of family and friends, the influential power of someone wishing to manipulate them is minimized, and the opportunities to do so are less available.
  2. Be aware of cognitive decline. Diminished capacity increases the vulnerability to Undue Influence. Maintain an attitude of honor and avoid patronizing language or tones such as baby-talk while honestly discussing any concerns you have with your older loved one.
  3. Adopt a family code of honor. All of the world’s great wisdom traditions have honoring parents and the elderly as a core tenant. It’s time to practice it. What is your family’s honor code?

Undue Influence is a very complex legal concept and should not be lightly alleged. If you believe that a loved one is being unduly influenced, contact an attorney licensed in your state with expertise in elder law.

[1]; Judge rules family friend exploited, took $2 million from Naples man with dementia, By Aisling Swift, Saturday, July 23, 2011

[2] Assessment of Older Adults with Diminished Capacity: A Handbook for Lawyers

The Case Files – Episode 1: “Fool me once, shame on you…”

Wealth and Honor is a website dedicated to helping families navigate the financial challenges of age transitions. The site now has a YouTube Channel to host “edutainment” videos featuring non-legal commentary on actual court cases involving will disputes, elder financial abuse, estate litigation, fiduciary liability, and other issues of aging, death, and wealth.

Court transcripts are condensed into a factual summary with popular sitcom characters providing faces to the actual characters of the case, followed by a non-legal commentary of lessons to learn and missteps to avoid.
The Case Files Trailer

The first episode covers the case of Lintz vs Lintz, a 2014 case decided in the California Appeals Court, that includes claims of breach of fiduciary duty, elder financial abuse, undue influence, among other claims. Viewers are encouraged to first watch a presentation of commonly used terms before watching the case episodes.

For a full text of the court transcript, click here.

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