Revising someone’s will to your benefit when they are not capable of making sound decisions is abuse.

We hear the horror stories of an older adult, with some degree of dementia, dies and leaves their entire estate to a distant relative or caregiver, leaving out close family entirely. While this is not an impossible situation to get out of, it is very difficult.

When someone is influenced and induced to act other than by their own free will the legal term is undue influence. Usually there is an imbalance of power. The person who is accused of undue influence is known to the family usually as someone who shows extreme concern for the intended target and may even prevent family from seeing or communicating with that person. Then, after death of the relative, they receive a windfall from the estate from a new will drawn up more recently that no one was aware of. They may even claim they deserve it after all the care they have given.

What steps can you take to prevent this from happening?

– Visit often and be involved. Even if you call every day you may not be aware of the level of control that is being exerted. In addition, you will see first hand at the level of cognition your relative possesses and you send a message to any potential abuser that you are watching.

– Watch bank and investment statements closely to check for any unusual activity. Let bankers and financial planners know you are concerned.

– Become the legal guardian of your relative before dementia gets too bad and while they are still competent. That way, they cannot legally sign anything such as a new will without your consent.

– If someone is intentionally left out of the will (like one of the children but not others) make sure that person knows prior to death that this is the intention and why it is being done.

-If you are pretty sure someone is exerting undue influence you can report elder abuse to Adult Protective Services.

What if your relative dies and you realize too late that they have been taken advantage of? The first thing to do is consult with an estate attorney. They can lay out your options. It is not impossible to get the probate court to nullify a will that has been signed fraudulently, but I promise you it will not be painless.

With the population getting older I fear that this problem will only become more common and get worse.

I invite anyone with more experience in this arena to comment.