September 10, 2014

Undue Influence involving a California Trust

One method in which a testamentary instrument can be voided is if it is the product of "undue influence." California case law says that undue influence is dependent upon the facts and circumstances of the situation. Sparks v. Sparks (1950) 101 Cal.App.2d 129, 135. Thus, there is no set of elements which need to be established in order to show that undue influence has occurred.

However, there are situations which suggest a showing of undue influence. These include the following: (1) unnatural provisions cutting off from any substantial bequests the natural objects of the decedent's bounty; (2) dispositions at variance with the intentions of the decedent, which he or she may have expressed both before and after execution; (3) relations between the chief beneficiaries and the decedent that afforded the chief beneficiaries an opportunity to control the testamentary act; (4) a mental or physical condition suffered by the decedent that permitted the subversion of his or her freedom of will; and (5) the chief beneficiaries' active procurement of the contested instrument. (Estate of Lingenfelter (1952) 38 Cal.2d 571, 585.

An example of undue influence occurred in the case Arnold v. Fuller, Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BP122665. Thelsey Fuller was the father of five children, Robert Fuller, Doris Fuller, Shirley Ritchey, Sandra Arnold and Steven Fuller. Prior to forming his trust, Mr. Fuller expressed his intentions to evenly divide his trust estate equally amongst his five children. Consequently, Mr. Fuller executed a trust on July 23, 2008 which evenly distributed his trust estate to his five children.

Only two months later on September 16, 2008, Mr. Fuller curiously amended the distribution clause in his trust. It read: "On the settlor's death, the remaining trust estate shall be disposed of as follows: [¶] Shirley C. Ritchey shall be given the amount of forty dollars ($40.00), Sandra Arnold shall be given the amount of forty dollars ($40.00), Steven A. Fuller shall be given the amount of ten dollars ($10.00). [¶] The remaining trust estate shall be distributed as follows: [¶] Robert Fuller shall be given fifty percent (50%) of the trust estate. [¶] Doris Fuller shall be given fifty percent (50%) of the trust estate." 


Shirley Ritchey and Sandra Arnold filed a petition to have the September 16, 2008 amendment voided, citing undue influence. The trial court determined that such amendment was the product of undue influence and voided the amendment. This judgment was upheld on appeal in an unpublished decision.  

An undue influence case can usually be easy to spot. For example, the cases I've seen involved a tortfeasor befriending an elderly person who amends their trust or will to the benefit of the tortfeasor at the cost of cutting out their children and/or grandchildren from his or her estate. Where there is smoke, there is usually a fire.......