Liza Horvath, Senior Advocate: Dad left the house to a neighbor

Peninsula Premier Admin

Question: My father died recently and Mom had passed about six years prior. Dad formed a “friendship” with a neighborhood couple, and, toward the end of his life, they spent a lot of time together, taking trips and generally had what we all thought was a wonderful relationship. Well, turns out that a year before Dad died, he changed his will and left his house to this couple! His house is the only asset of his estate besides some small bank accounts and he always said he was leaving the home to my sister and me. We are crushed. Can this be a matter of undue influence or fraud? Should we seek legal advice?

Answer: You should, absolutely, seek legal advice. While it is true that we can leave our estates to anyone we like when a situation exists like the one you describe something seems fishy and should be explored. Generally, we have those who are considered “the natural recipients of our bounty,” such as a spouse, children or relatives, so when a will or trust gives property to newfound friends, caregivers or a new flame, it merits some investigation.

Undue influence exists when someone is subjected to or controlled by the influence of another which “overcomes” that person’s free will and results in inequality such as the one you describe. If you take your case to court, the court will consider the type of relationship that existed between your father and the party accused of undue influence – the neighbors in this case, their opportunity to influence him, the motive and the resulting unnatural terms of the disposition of his property. In other words, why would your father leave his home to a neighbor instead of his children?

A large part of the court’s concern will focus on your father’s mental state. Was he frequently subjected to the neighbors’ control? What was his state of mind at the time he signed the new will? Was he susceptible to influence they may have exerted? Did age or disease create any weakness of mind or body?

You mention that he went on trips with the neighbors, were you and your sister ever prevented from spending time with him because of the trips or otherwise? The court will consider whether he was intentionally isolated or prevented from seeing his natural heirs – you and your sister.

Because it sounds like the new will is significantly different from his prior estate plan, it becomes more credible that he was influenced. Was the new will drawn up by your father’s longstanding estate attorney? In undue influence cases, new documents are frequently drawn up by an attorney who is loyal to the influencer rather than a longstanding attorney of the testator – in this case, your father.

On the flip side, is there any reason Dad may have fully intended to change his will? Did you and your sister have a falling out with him? Did you stay in touch and visit often? Did you help him if he asked for help? If the only meaningful relationship he had at the end of his life was with the neighbors, dear old dad may have had good reasons to change his will. Look at all aspects and then reach out to a good estate litigation attorney. Good luck!

Liza Horvath has over 30 years’ experience in the estate planning and trust fields and is a Licensed Professional Fiduciary. Liza currently serves as president of Monterey Trust Management. This is not intended to be legal or tax advice. If you have a question, call (831)646-5262 or email liza@montereytrust.com

Contributed by local news sources

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