I have co-authored this blog with Paul W. Norris, a colleague of mine at Stark & Stark.

In a single case earlier this month the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld a lower court ruling that invalidated:

  • A 1999 Will, a 2004 Codicil, and a 2005 Will;
  • A 2005 Revocable Trust;
  • 2008 Deed for real property; and,
  • Roughly $3,000,000 in lifetime transfers!

These documents and transfers were invalidated because of undue influence by the decedent’s children.

Undue influence claims are more likely in families suffering from internal conflict, or where family members are excluded. Unfortunately, the proliferation of do-it-yourself estate planning and access to beneficiary designations has made it even easier to deprive others of their inheritance. If you are the victim of inheritance fraud you have rights and need to take immediate action to protect your inheritance.

I.  Inappropriate Lifetime Transfers Should be Challenged.

Many times, individuals can be pressured or influenced into making inappropriate lifetime gifts and transfers. These gifts can, in some egregious cases, render an estate insolvent and leave nothing for the other heirs. Lifetime gifts and transfers can occur in several ways, including:

  • Withdrawals from accounts;
  • Checks;
  • Outright gifts;
  • Transfers using Powers of Attorney.

Under New Jersey law lifetime gifts are more susceptible to being overturned than other transfers. If you can show a “confidential relationship” between the person making the gift and the recipient, then the burden of proof shifts to the recipient of the gift. The recipient has a heightened burden to prove that the gift was fair and no undue influence was used. These standards allow individuals who have been victimized by lifetime gifts and transfers to challenge them.

II.  Overturning Improper Post-Mortem Arrangements.

The availability of do-it-your estate planning provides an opportunity for those seeking to improperly take assets after a person dies. Many arrangements can be made without the advice of counsel and some options are available online:

  • Beneficiary designations;
  • Joint Accounts;
  • Payable On Death designations;
  • Even Wills and Trusts.

The accessibility of these arrangements heightens the potential for undue influence.

As with lifetime gifts, the burden may be shifted to the beneficiary of the assets depending on how the arrangements were implemented. The circumstances of each asset are important and should be reviewed with experienced legal counsel who understands the potential issues that may be involved.

III.  Conclusion.

You should seek immediate legal attention if you have been improperly deprived of your inheritance. Options are available to protect your rights if undue influence or other means were used to take away your share. Depending on the nature of the transactions involved, the burden may even be on the opposing party to prove that the transfers were appropriate. There are very short statute of limitations periods that may apply and untimely litigation will likely be barred. Therefore, it is important that you enforce your rights as soon as possible.