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Undue influence is a form of abuse that coerces and/or manipulates an individual into making legal or financial decisions against their interests and against their original intent. Older adults are often the victim of undue influence. Their abuser may be taking advantage of a mental condition that diminishes capacity, or they may just be taking advantage of the older person’s desire for companionship, attention, or even intimacy.

Issues of undue influence can be discovered during the victim’s life by their loved ones. Loved ones may notice uncharacteristic behaviors or sudden legal and financial decisions being made to the benefit of the abuser.

Undue influence may also be discovered after the victim’s death. The victim’s loved ones will learn that plans to distribute assets through a will and/or trust have been drastically altered to the benefit of one person or a select group of people. Undue influence is one of the most common means in which to challenge a will’s validity or to challenge the validity of agreements made pertaining to trusts and other estate planning instruments.

If you suspect that someone is exerting undue influence on a loved one who is currently living, contact New Mexico Adult Protective Services (APS) immediately to report your suspicions. Speak with an elder law and elder abuse attorney to learn about your options.

If your loved one has passed and you suspect their estate-related affairs have been drastically altered as a result of undue influence, speak with an experienced probate dispute lawyer promptly.

New Mexico Financial & Family Law has experience in undue influence cases arising both before and after an individual’s death. We can review your case and weigh your concerns during a confidential, no-obligation consultation. You can then learn about your legal options and the next steps to take. Call (505) 503-1637 or contact us online to schedule your appointment with an experienced attorney now.

What Is Undue Influence?

“Undue influence” refers to a set of circumstances where someone imposes their will upon someone else to the abuser’s benefit. Undue influence can involve any of the following:

  • Persuasion
  • Emotional manipulation
  • Misrepresenting services or legal actions, acting in bad faith
  • Lying to the victim
  • Convincing the victim they need to separate themselves from loved ones
  • Misinforming the victim about their rights or their best options
  • Making threats or exerting pressure
  • Withholding companionship, attention, contact, sex, etc. for the purposes of manipulation

Undue influence may also be commonly seen in combination with other forms of psychological, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

The state of New Mexico does not provide a formal definition of undue influence. However, landmark cases touching upon the issue often cite the case Brown v. Cobb, which stated that undue influence “means influence, improperly exerted, which acts to the injury of the person swayed by it or to the injury of those persons whom [he or] she would have benefited.”  Brown v. Cobb, 53 N.M. 169, 172, 204 P.2d 264, 266 (1949)

Simply put: the “undue” part says it all. The abuser has, in one form or another, inappropriately used means at their disposal to influence the victim to make decisions against their own interests and to the benefit of the abuser. The law generally considers undue influence to be a factor in any case where it can be proved that the alleged victim made decisions that were against their own interests/intent and that they otherwise would not have made without the abuser’s undue influence exerted upon them.

What Are Common Scenarios of Undue Influence?

Undue influence can arise in any sort of situation. Some of the most common examples include:

  • A child, family member, or heir who exerts undue influence to convince someone to change their will/trust arrangements to the abuser’s benefit
  • A new spouse, relationship partner, or informal caregiver who uses their position to manipulate the victim and estrange them from their loved ones
  • A professional service provider uses their position to mislead the victim and pressure them into making decisions against their legal and financial interests.

A common theme is that the undue influencer has a position of power over the victim. The victim may have a strong need for the abuser’s approval, attention, companionship, etc. The victim may also be using the abuser for professional services, such as may be the case with a professional caregiver, nurse, or in-home healthcare provider. Attorneys also commonly exert undue influence on an individual, as can doctors, accountants, investment brokers, or even service providers like plumbers, home contractors, landscapers, etc.

Presumption of Undue Influence

New Mexico, like many states, has statutory language that states that it is the court’s duty to automatically presume that someone is the victim of undue influence when changes are made to their will, trusts, or estate planning instruments late in their life and to the benefit of someone who conventionally would not receive a significant portion of the estate (NM Stat § 45-3-404).

Put another way: spouses, children, relatives, and so forth are typically going to inherit the majority of an estate. Therefore, there is no automatic presumption of undue influence. However, if someone like a caregiver, new live-in partner, personal attorney, etc. is granted a significant portion of the estate, the law considers this an “unusual” circumstance, and the transfer will be subject to an investigation to determine whether undue influence occurs. The law also states another scenario: “the beneficiary of the transfer occupies a dominant position in the relationship which is not the usual circumstance in such relationships, then it is proper to impose a presumption of undue influence upon the transfer”.

Because of this statutory language, it can be easier for immediate family members and other close relatives to challenge the validity of a will that transfers property to someone under “unusual circumstances”.

What Are Common Signs of Undue Influence?

Undue influence can present itself in many ways, but there are often some common signs:

  • The person exerting undue influence suddenly starts spending more time with the victim
  • The victim is estranged from family and friends they saw regularly in the past
  • The victim may be in a vulnerable state because of a mental or medical condition
  • The victim has begun to make drastic changes to their financial situation, assets, estate, etc.
  • The victim begins to provide extravagant gifts or loans to someone they normally wouldn’t
  • The victim has become dependent on someone to an unusual extent
  • Someone has prepared checks or documents for the victim to sign
  • The victim is being charged excessive fees or agreeing to one-sided arrangements with a professional services provider

Sudden behavior changes and the emergence of a new or unexpected figure in the victim’s life are some of the most common themes. The victim may have a new, recent vulnerability related to a medical or mental condition worsening, or they may just be lonely. In any event, once major changes have taken place and it is suspected that the victim is being made to do things against their own interests, the abuse should be reported promptly to APS.

How Can You Legally Prove Undue Influence?

In New Mexico, there is no specific legal test to prove undue influence. However, there are a number of factors one can establish, laying out a case that undue influence is the most logical conclusion. These factors include:

  1. The alleged victim was vulnerable
  2. The alleged abuser had authority, power, or some other sort of unequal relationship over the alleged victim
  3. The alleged abuser engaged in tactics to exert influence to their own benefit
  4. The actions taken by the alleged victim were not in their favor or were not in their original intention, resulting in an obvious inequity

These factors can be difficult to establish. The courts may even be skeptical of whether undue influence occurred in a situation where the alleged abuser is someone who has a relationship that is traditionally close in society, such as if they were a child, long-time spouse, close relative, etc.

At the same time, results that are clearly inequitable and against the alleged victim’s interests often require some sort of explanation. In these situations, it may be more likely that the court will consider a situation as undue influence.

Civil Liability for Undue Influence and Elder Abuse

If it can be established that an individual exerted undue influence on someone, then there can be civil as well as criminal repercussions. The abuser may be ordered by the court to restore the assets they obtained through improper means. The victim may be awarded further compensation for damages related to emotional distress, hardship, and other consequences of the abuse. The abuser may also be ordered to pay punitive damages, especially in situations that are extremely egregious.

If you or someone close to you might be the victim of undue influence, speak to an elder abuse attorney as soon as possible to explore your options for holding the abuser accountable and seeking appropriate damages. You should also report suspected/alleged abuse to New Mexico Adult Protective Services immediately.

Undue Influence in Probate (Contesting a Will)

Tragically, undue influence often goes undiscovered until after the victim’s death. Family members and other presumed beneficiaries of the decedent will read the decedent’s will and/or instructions from the trust. Then, to their surprise, they learn that major changes have been made in years just before the loved one’s death. These changes typically result in a lopsided situation where one heir — sometimes a person who was not involved in the decedent’s life until very recently — obtains the majority of the estate.

It is critical to file a claim and contest probate as soon as possible once undue influence is suspected. Speak with a contested probate lawyer near you to go over the details of your case, discuss the possibility of undue influence, and potentially begin assembling evidence for your claim.

Visit New Mexico Financial & Family Law’s contested probate attorneys portal for more information and resources.

Our Attorneys are Here to Help When You Suspect Undue Influence

Whether the person allegedly being victimized through undue influence is someone living or recently deceased, the fact is that you care about them, their wishes, and the respect given to their name. New Mexico Financial & Family Law is here to assist you in any case involving undue influence.

If you wish to pursue a claim against someone for elder abuse involving undue influence, or if the victim has passed and you wish to contest matters of probate or the estate, we can be here for you. New Mexico Financial & Family Law works closely with its clients to uncover all of the relevant factors and then walk clients through the process of seeking proper justice. Our clients receive the utmost level of care, attention, and seasoned legal guidance in order to help them seek the optimal outcome.

Reach out to us today to start the conversation. Schedule your confidential no-obligation appointment now when you call (505) 503-1637 or contact us online.

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