After an individual’s death, litigation regarding the decedent’s estate can arise in a variety of contexts. A common claim asserted in a lawsuit challenging the validity of a decedent’s Last Will and Testament is that the will was the result of “Undue Influence.”

“Undue Influence” is defined by our courts as “’mental, moral or physical’ exertion which has destroyed the ‘free agency’” of an individual by preventing that individual “’from following the dictates of his own mind and will and accepting instead the domination and influence of another.’” Haynes v. First Nat. State Bank of New Jersey, 87 N.J. 163, 176 (1981) (quoting In re Neuman, 133 N.J. Eq. 532, 534 (E. & A. 1943)).

If the will benefits a person who had a “confidential relationship” with the testator, and there are additional “suspicious” circumstances, the law in New Jersey presumes that undue influence was present, unless it is proven otherwise. Haynes v. First National State Bank of New Jersey.

Examples of a “confidential relationship” include when the testator lives with or depends upon one of his/her children for his/her needs. “Suspicious circumstances” may include a will favoring one family member over others; the beneficiary arranging for or attending the will drafting or execution; or denying family members access to the testator. R. Houghton and M. Wigod, The Will Contest; 5 New Jersey Practice, Wills and Administration §62.

The burden of proof rests with the person challenging the will “unless the will benefits one who stood in a confidential relationship to the testat[or] and there are additional circumstances of a suspicious character present;” in such a case, “the law raises a presumption of undue influence and the burden of proof is shifted to the proponent” of the will. Haynes, 87 N.J. at 176 (quoting In re Rittenhouse’s Will, 19 N.J. 376, 378-379 (1955)).

Notably, the same factors that may lead a person to favor, for example, one child in an estate plan (e.g., the fact that the client might live with that child and depend on him or her for daily needs) may also be used to support a claim of undue influence.