Whenever there is a very uneven distribution of assets among heirs, state law carries a presumption of the exercise of undue influence, a 2014 article in the Indiana Lawyer points out. Whenever it appears that a dispute among rightful heirs might result in litigation, attorneys have a duty to ensure that their client hasn’t exercised undue influence over the estate owner. In other words, as an estate planning attorney in Indiana, if my clients make changes in their wills or estate plans that result in favoring one of their heirs over others, it’s up to me to determine they are competent and capable of handling their own affairs at the time they are making those changes.
Here is the case described in the Indiana Lawyer article:
In her new estate plan, Phyllis Hayes agreed to give her son Kenneth the right to purchase the family’s 200-acre farm for $500,000. When Kenneth was about to exercise the option agreement his mother had signed, sisters Jo Ann and Diane objected, since the value of the farmland had more than tripled since the contract was signed. The case went to court, which ruled in favor of Kenneth; the sisters appealed, claiming that undue influence over their mother had resulted in this “unfair” distribution of their mother’s assets.
- The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Kenneth’s purchasing the farmland at the price agreed upon in the original contract. The reasoning:
- The agreement had been based on fair-market value per acre of farmland at the time the contract was drawn.
- The mother explained that her son had helped her out during hard times, and had helped run the farm after his father did.
- A doctor’s statement said Phyllis was capable of making decisions regarding her estate.
- The attorney had videotaped Phyllis talking about why she was changing her estate plan.
As a colleague of mine in the Indiana Section of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Claire Lewis expressed in the Indiana Lawyer article, “There are legitimate reasons….. why an older adult might choose to amend a will. Perhaps one sibling has sacrificed to provide care, for example, and the parents decide a greater share of the estate is warranted.”
Still, whenever a client of ours treats one heir more or less favorably than others, it’s incumbent on us, the attorneys at Geyer Law, to understand why – and to be able, if the plan is challenged later on, to be certain of the grantor’s competence.