There is an old adage: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” In other words, when someone is under extreme duress and facing certain death, even skeptics tend to find a higher power to which to pray for deliverance. The validity of this saying is questionable, but there is little doubt that people tend to become more interested in arranging their affairs when there is an event or circumstance that seems foreboding or threatening. Even if a sudden or temporary situation inspires someone to create a new estate plan or upend an existing one, chances are that any changes made are enforceable even after the circumstances pass.
Duress and the Validity of Estate Plans
A will, trust, power of attorney or other estate plan document may be challenged if the document was crafted while the person was under “duress.” This is so because a person acting under duress is not making voluntary or well-considered choices but is instead reacting to the stresses of the moment. Moreover, the law does not typically enforce decisions or documents a person chooses or creates while under duress so as not to encourage others to place individuals in such situations so as to take advantage of others.
A person is not just under duress because their circumstances are stressful, though. A pandemic, a belief that one is in imminent peril, or a general unease about one’s current state of affairs are not likely to cause a person to be under duress. Instead, a person is under duress when the stresses of their circumstances was so overpowering and so overwhelming that the person would almost certainly had made different choices had the situation not existed. For example, a beloved family member may have acted under duress if they changed their long-standing will to disinherit their family members with little advance notice and after being told by health officials that the person’s family members’ behaviors gave them COVID-19.
How is Duress Proven in Probate Cases?
Even if duress is suspected, affected family members and beneficiaries may have trouble proving that extreme circumstances and stresses led their loved one to change their estate plan. Statements from friends, neighbors, and other family members may help show that te person was experiencing unusual or extremely disturbing thoughts just before changing their estate plan. The individual who assisted them in drafting the estate plan may also have valuable information as to the person’s state of mind just before the documents were created. Other erratic behaviors, such as unusual spending habits or purchases, may also help suggest that the person was under duress when crafting their estate plan.
If an estate planning document conforms with all of the statutory requirements, then it falls upon those seeking to invalidate the document to produce evidence or witnesses and establish the document’s invalidity. Gathering such evidence and witnesses and presenting it to a court in a persuasive way is no simple feat. It is suggested that one obtain assistance from an attorney with considerable estate planning and probate experience to help with these tasks of identifying, collecting, evaluating, and bringing forth evidence to challenge a family member’s will, trust, or estate plan.
Speak with Dawes Legal, LLC About Your Estate Planning Questions
Whether you are wondering about the necessity of an estate plan for yourself and your loved ones or you have questions about a family member’s plan, Dawes Legal, LLC is here to help. Our knowledgeable estate planning team can help you secure peace of mind for yourself and your loved ones. Call Dawes Legal, LLC’s Columbus office today and schedule an initial consultation to go over your concerns: (614) 733-9999.