Nothing can tear a family apart quite like a dispute over a will when it leaves property to unexpected recipients or in surprising proportions, or disinherits a close family member. Startling property dispositions like these are called unnatural dispositions, which raise concerns over whether suspicious circumstances existed surrounding the will's execution that could even make it invalid.
Texas will contests
One basis on which a will can be invalidated is when another person is found to have unduly influenced the will's maker (also called the testator) to create will provisions that the deceased person was unlikely to have made under normal circumstances. When there is evidence of undue influence, interested persons can challenge the validity of the resulting will in Texas state court in a proceeding called a will contest.
The nature of undue influence
To prove undue influence, all of the following must be true:
- Influence must have been exerted, considering the relationships of all people involved, the opportunities for exerting it, any fraudulent motivations of the person exerting influence, any regular control over the testator by another person and the circumstances of the will's creation and signing.
- The influence must have been so strong as to have overcome the thinking of the testator when the will was executed, considering his or her state of mind, any inability to resist or mental vulnerability to the particular nature of the influence, and the will maker's mental and physical weaknesses from age or illness or from other factors.
- The particular disposition of property would not have been made but for the influence.
A recent example
In a case earlier this year, the Court of Appeals of Texas in El Paso looked at a will contest in which a brother claimed that his sister had exerted undue influence on their elderly father to disinherit the brother. The court found that there was insufficient evidence of undue influence because the father could still make his own decisions about his property, despite the sister having had some influence over him.
The sister's influence, however, did not rise to the level of being undue, meaning that she had not "overwhelmed [the father's] free agency." The court elaborated that undue influence that would void a will must have been so overpowering that the maker lost his own free will in the process of making the decisions reflected in the will.
In finding that the evidence did not show undue influence, the court noted that even though the father had had a stroke and had some memory loss, he could still "resist" requests from the sister. While a "weakened physical or mental state" shows that a person may be susceptible to influence, more evidence that influence was undue and overwhelming is needed to rise to the level of making a will invalid.
Seek legal counsel
Texas will contests are extremely complex lawsuits, so anyone wondering about the circumstances surrounding a loved one's will or faced with defending a challenge to a will should speak with an experienced attorney as soon as possible. Certain deadlines for bringing or responding to the suit may apply.
Mills Shirley LLP in Galveston and Houston is the oldest law firm in the Lone Star State. Its attorneys regularly represent clients involved in will contests and other kinds of estate litigation.