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Contesting a will in New Jersey based on undue influence

Undue influence is one of several grounds upon which a will can be invalidated.

Imagine the shock of finding out the will of a close family member who has died does not leave his or her property to the people the decedent had said would inherit or who everyone expected would inherit, usually the person’s immediate family members. This situation is especially troubling when the property is instead left to someone who was in a suspicious position of influence over the decedent.

In New Jersey, a will can be invalidated by the state court in a will contest if it is found that a vulnerable testator (person writing the will) was the victim of undue influence by another person. Vulnerability could be because of advanced age, economic need or mental or physical impairment.

Court opinions define undue influence in this context as “mental, moral or physical” exertion by a person in a confidential relationship with the testator – exertion so strong that it destroys the testator’s free will to leave his or her property in the proportions and to whom he or she would otherwise have done.

Instead, in a case of undue influence, the testator’s estate may be left to the person exerting the inappropriate influence or to someone in that person’s family or circle.

Factors that can indicate that a confidential relationship existed include the testator’s dependence and reliance on the person for care or companionship as well as the decedent’s trust in the person. Such people could be family members, caregivers or attorneys.

The person who is contesting the will has the burden of proving undue influence, but if the contestant can show that the will is written to benefit someone in a confidential relationship and that there are suspicious circumstances, a presumption of undue influence is created, shifting the burden to the proponent (defender) of the will to overcome that presumption.

Undue influence is only one of several grounds upon which a will could be invalidated in New Jersey. Others include duress, lack of testamentary capacity, fraud, improper will execution and more.

It is very important that anyone considering a will contest or defending against one consult legal counsel as early as possible. The stakes involved in matters of inheritance can be financially and personally significant. Do not delay as deadlines in this area tend to be relatively short.

The lawyers at Lanza & Lanza with offices in Flemington, New Jersey, represent people on both sides of will contests across the state or from other states when a New Jersey will contest or other estate litigation is involved.