Challenging a Will: A Guide to Understanding Undue Influence and Elder Abuse

estate planning

When faced with the difficult reality of a parent’s declining health, protecting their best interests becomes a paramount concern. The situation can become more complex when estate matters come into play. This guide aims to shed light on the topic of undue influence and how it might lead to an estate contest.

What is a Will Contest?

In essence, a will contest arises when a dispute over the legitimacy of a will is formalized. This challenge is generally grounded in the belief that the will does not truly encapsulate the intentions of the individual who drafted it, known as the testator, or that the will may be legally invalid for reasons such as fraudulent activities, undue influence, or lack of testamentary capacity. The latter term refers to the lawful capability of a person to make a will. A will may be contested if there is a suspicion that the testator was not in a competent state of mind at the time of the will’s creation or if it’s believed that they were being manipulated or coerced into making certain decisions within the will. This contestation of a will can become a complex, potentially contentious process requiring comprehensive understanding of estate litigation principles.

What is Undue Influence?

Undue influence refers to a situation where an individual, due to their authority, relationship, or manipulative tactics, coerces another person into making decisions against their best interest. In the context of wills and estate planning, it involves swaying the testator—the person making the will—to distribute their assets in a manner that may not align with their true intentions. A typical scenario might involve a caregiver or a close associate exerting pressure on a vulnerable elder to manipulate the allocation of their estate. This can lead to the creation of a will that doesn’t genuinely reflect the wishes of the testator, but instead, serves the interests of the manipulator. Recognizing undue influence is crucial, as it compromises the validity of the will and may warrant a legal challenge, particularly in cases where the testator is an elder person prone to exploitation.

Recognizing the Signs of Elder Abuse

Elder abuse can manifest in various ways and isn’t always immediately obvious. Physical abuse might be visible through unexplained injuries or sudden changes in physical health. Emotional abuse may be evidenced through changes in behavior or mood, such as depression, withdrawal, or fear. Financial abuse, on the other hand, can be more difficult to detect, but some indicators include sudden financial difficulties or uncharacteristic transactions.

In the context of estate planning, elder abuse may emerge as undue influence. This form of abuse is often difficult to detect, and it is typically evidenced through sudden changes in a will or estate plan, or through atypical bequests that favor one individual disproportionately. A vulnerable elder may be manipulated to alter their will in a way that doesn’t reflect their true wishes, but instead, favors the manipulator.

Understanding these signs is crucial for the protection of your parents and their estate. If any of these signs are present, it might indicate that your loved one is a victim of elder abuse or undue influence, and it could be grounds for a potential estate contest. Recognizing these signs early can be instrumental in stopping the abuse and ensuring that your parents’ wishes are respected in their estate planning.

The Link Between Undue Influence and Elder Abuse

When undue influence is used to exploit the vulnerabilities of an elderly person, it is classified as a form of elder abuse. This often involves the manipulator exerting their power to control the elder’s decisions, particularly those concerning their estate. When this occurs, the intentions and wishes of the elder can be overlooked or completely disregarded, resulting in the manipulator unjustly benefiting from the altered allocation of assets. The seriousness of such situations is often grounds for a will to be contested. In the fight against elder abuse, acknowledging the connection between undue influence and elder abuse is a crucial step. This knowledge can empower family members and loved ones to take necessary actions to protect the elder from any form of exploitation and ensure their desires concerning their estate are properly and lawfully honored.

Challenging a Will Under Suspicion of Undue Influence

If you believe that a loved one’s will was crafted under undue influence, taking action to contest the will may be necessary. Contesting a will involves demonstrating that the person who created it, the testator, was subject to manipulative force at the time of the will’s creation. This manipulation must have been so overpowering that it subverted the testator’s own desires, leading them to craft a will that benefits the manipulator, rather than reflecting their own wishes.

This process can be intricate and emotionally charged. To successfully challenge a will on the grounds of undue influence, you’ll need to gather compelling evidence. This could include testamentary documents, financial records, witness statements, or medical records indicating the testator’s vulnerability. Remember that the onus is on the person challenging the will to prove undue influence and the proponent of such claims will face a steep hurdle to make their case.

Navigating the legal landscape surrounding undue influence and will contests is often complex. It may be advisable to seek the assistance of a legal professional. Experienced estate litigation attorneys can provide invaluable guidance and support throughout the process. They can help you assemble and present a strong case, boosting the likelihood of a successful will contest. Whether you are in Maryland, Montgomery County, or elsewhere, don’t hesitate to reach out to an experienced legal practitioner. The protection of your loved one’s legacy is worth fighting for.

Legal and Support Resources

In situations of undue influence and elder abuse, various resources exist to provide necessary guidance and assistance. Legal professionals specializing in estate litigation can prove to be invaluable allies, offering advice and support tailored to your unique circumstances. Indeed, tactically, having reached out to an attorney skilled in estate litigation is a great place to start because these people have seen and worked through other abuse cases. Having a guide who has traversed these types of issues is helpful in spotting and stopping the abuse– documenting potential abuse while the individual is living may also be helpful in terms of litigating the claim after they have passed. Organizations such as the National Center on Elder Abuse offer a wealth of resources and tips for identifying and tackling instances of elder abuse.

In regions like Montgomery County, local aging services and elder law attorneys also provide a comprehensive range of services to combat elder abuse and undue influence. These may include legal representation, education about elder rights, and assistance with various bureaucratic procedures.

An essential part of dealing with these complex issues is being proactive in seeking help. Reach out to these resources early on when you start noticing signs of undue influence or abuse. This way, you can protect your loved one’s legacy and ensure their wishes are rightfully honored. As every situation is unique, these resources can provide the specialized advice and assistance needed to effectively address your concerns and safeguard your loved ones from potential exploitation.

Bear in mind, understanding and addressing elder abuse and undue influence is not something you have to do alone. With the right support, it’s possible to navigate these complex situations effectively and ensure your loved ones are protected.

Remember that the fight against elder abuse requires a collective effort, and the legal resources and support networks at your disposal can play a crucial role in safeguarding your loved ones’ interests.

Keeping Your Parents Safe

Ensuring the safety of your parents in their twilight years is paramount. Start by fostering an environment of trust and openness where they feel comfortable discussing sensitive matters such as their financial status and estate plans. Regular and meaningful engagement can offer insights into any unusual shifts in their financial habits or behavioral patterns, which could be indicative of undue influence or elder abuse.

Stress the importance of seeking expert legal counsel when making important decisions about their estate. Having a professional review their will can provide an added layer of protection against potential exploitation. Additionally, encourage them to distribute copies of their will to trustworthy family members to prevent any manipulations.

While these strategies can offer some measure of protection, it’s essential to remember that elder abuse can often be subtle and hard to detect. Therefore, it’s crucial to be vigilant and proactive in identifying any warning signs of abuse or undue influence. Should any suspicions arise, don’t hesitate to consult legal professionals or elder abuse resources in your locality, whether you’re in Maryland or Montgomery County.

Keeping your parents safe from elder abuse and undue influence requires continuous effort. By taking proactive steps and making use of available resources, you can contribute to ensuring their well-being and the preservation of their legacy.


Navigating the intricacies of elder abuse and undue influence can be emotionally draining and legally complex. In addition to grappling with the declining health of a parent, understanding the nuances of a potential will contest can add another layer of stress. However, having the knowledge to identify signs of undue influence and the ability to question a dubious will can play a pivotal role in defending your loved one’s interests and legacy. It’s important to lean on the expertise of legal professionals and to utilize elder abuse resources in your region to effectively tackle these issues. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. A broad network of support is available to ensure your loved ones are protected and their wishes are honored as intended. In this challenging journey, knowledge is power and being proactive can make all the difference.

By: Jeffrey D. Katz, Managing Partner