Q&A: Can This Estate Gift Be Challenged by “Undue Influence”?

Church leaders should never try to receive such a gift through “force, coercion, or over-persuasion.”

An elderly man in our congregation passed away recently. Our church was surprised to learn from the local probate court that he had left most of his estate to the church. He was a widower, with no children.
Some of our church board members are concerned that his collateral relatives will challenge the validity of the will on the ground of undue influence. What exactly is undue influence? Can this gift be nullified on this basis?

If the recipient of a gift “unduly influenced” the donor into making the gift, the donor (or a legal heir) may have the gift canceled. This rule applies both to direct gifts made during one’s lifetime and to gifts contained in documents (such as wills) which take effect at the donor’s death.

There are five points to note about undue influence.

First, it is more than persuasion or suggestion. It connotes total dominion and control over the mind of another. As one court noted, “undue influence is that influence which, by force, coercion or over-persuasion destroys the free agency” of another.

Second, undue influence generally must be inferred from the circumstances surrounding a gift, since it seldom can be proven directly. Circumstances commonly considered in determining whether a donor was unduly influenced in the making of a gift include the following:

  • Whether the gift was the product of hasty action
  • Whether the gift was concealed from others
  • Whether the person or organization benefited by the gift was active in securing it
  • Whether the gift was consistent or inconsistent with prior declarations and planning of the donor
  • Whether the gift was reasonable rather than unnatural in view of the donor’s circumstances, attitudes, and family
  • The donor’s age, physical condition, and mental health
  • Whether a confidential relationship existed between the donor and the recipient of the gift
  • Whether the donor had independent advice (ideally, by an attorney who is not a member of the donee church)

Third, most courts have held that undue influence must be proven by “clear and convincing” or “clear and satisfactory” evidence. Proof by a mere preponderance of the evidence will not suffice.

However, some courts have ruled that a “presumption” of undue influence may arise when a gift is made by a church member directly to his or her minister, or when an attorney who drafts a will leaving a gift to a church is a member of the same church. This presumption is rebuttable.

The bottom line is that undue influence usually is very difficult to prove, particularly when the decedent was in reasonably good mental and physical health at the time the will was executed and had independent legal advice.

Fourth, persons who would challenge a gift made to a church on the basis of undue influence must not delay in seeking redress for an unreasonable length of time, since unreasonable delay will bar any recovery.

Fifth, church leaders should recognize that they have a moral obligation to assist in implementing the estate plans of deceased members so long as they are satisfied that no improper influence was exercised. If a former member in fact intended that a portion of his or her estate be distributed to the church, and church leaders too quickly succumb to threats from attorneys hired by disgruntled relatives, then they have violated a sacred trust.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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