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Texas wills and undue influence

When a loved one's will turns out to contain unexpected provisions, family members may suspect something amiss. One of the more common causes of Texas will contests is the allegation that one of the beneficiaries exercised undue influence.

Texas law declares a will invalid if the testator drafted its provisions because of undue influence. Proving undue influence means showing the existence of the influence, the fact that the influencer actually benefitted and that the influence was purposeful and actually rose to the level of taking over the testator's will.

When does influence become undue?

One type of scenario may arise when the testator becomes particularly close to one family member or friend, then leaves that person a disproportionate amount of assets. Other relatives might argue this beneficiary purposely sought the testator's favor in order to benefit. However, just doing someone favors or paying them insincere compliments would usually not fall into the category of undue influence, even if the beneficiary only performed these acts in order to get benefits.

On the other hand, a finding of undue influence may become more likely if the court discovers the beneficiary took steps to isolate the testator and increase his or her dependence. Other indicators may include misrepresentation of circumstances, threats or sustained psychological pressure, especially in the case of a mentally frail person.

Did the testator exercise free will?

Texas courts typically require the influence to be so strong as to overcome the actual will of the testator. This means they want to see evidence of some type of coercion, pressure or fraud. They may look at the totality of circumstances, including the testator's physical and mental capacity and whether he or she depended on the beneficiary in any way. They consider both the nature of the pressure and the capacity of the testator to resist it.

Evaluating the total circumstances

Undue influence consists of a pattern of interactions, rather than one specific act. Recognizing undue influence means examining the entire picture of the relationship between these two people. As such, courts will rarely see direct, unequivocal evidence that completely proves or disproves such allegations. Rather, courts examine a variety of factors to determine whether the cumulative circumstantial evidence adds up to a strong showing of undue influence.

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