The law governing undue influence claims in Florida is a frequent topic of discussion on this blog [click here, here, here, here]. But for those of us in the trenches, we know clever legal arguments rarely carry the day; these cases are won and lost on the strength of your evidence.

So here’s the problem: there aren’t many tools out there designed to help probate litigators and their clients organize their thinking and zero in on the key facts they’ll need to build a winning case. One such tool I recently discovered is the Undue Influence Worksheet developed by forensic psychiatrist Bennett Blum, M.D. In this short article Dr. Blum explains the thinking underlying his worksheet:

The “Worksheet” is based upon the IDEAL protocol, which combines knowledge from the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and sociology regarding the mechanisms of human manipulation, with extensive review of statutes, case law, and legal theory. IDEAL describes those psychological and social factors that commonly co-exist in undue influence situations. These factors are: Isolation; Dependency; Emotional manipulation and/or Exploitation of a vulnerability; Acquiescence; and Loss. 

Case Study:

When I’m teaching I find nothing beats a good case study for explaining new ideas. So I was happy to see Dr. Blum included the following case study in his article applying his Worksheet:

The following is a true case, although extreme in its clarity. The issue of undue influence is obvious, but the case is presented to help show how a fact pattern is considered within the IDEAL protocol:

Mr. Jones is an affluent, 88 year-old retired professor. His beloved wife of 60 years died two years ago, and since then he has been very lonely. Mr. Jones has a good and loving relationship with his three adult children, and though they live in other States he speaks with each every week. Mr. Jones moved to a retirement community four years earlier, and because of his wife’s illness and subsequent death, he has no significant social contacts in his current community. His long-time friends live several hundred miles away. Mr. Jones has multiple medical problems – diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and difficulty walking due to arthritis – but has no apparent cognitive impairment.

Mr. Jones meets Ms. Smith, a 62 year-old divorced woman. She moves into his home six months later. She provides physical care in the form of preparing meals, cleaning the house, taking him to physician appointments, and ensuring he takes his medications properly. During the next six months, Ms. Smith begins asking for “tokens of appreciation” and purchases a new car, wardrobe, and jewelry with Mr. Jones’ money. She also demands that he give her his late wife’s jewelry, which he had intended to give to his grandchildren. At the same time, Mr. Jones stops telephoning his children, and they in turn find it more and more difficult to speak with him. Ms. Smith is now the only person to answer the telephone, and when the children call they often are told their father is unavailable or does not feel well enough to talk. Eventually, they are not allowed to speak to him at all. Two months later, after repeated angry exchanges with Ms. Smith, the eldest child receives a telephone message from Mr. Jones. In the message, Mr. Jones says, “She says I cannot call any of you anymore. If I do she will leave me and she says that at my age no one else will care for me, and that I will be alone. The same thing will happen if I stop giving her money. I know what she is doing, but I was so lonely after your mother died. I couldn’t bear to be that lonely again. I just hope that I can hold back enough money so she will stay until I die.” These were Mr. Jones’ last words to his children. He subsequently changed his estate plan – bequeathing everything to Ms. Smith.

Applying IDEAL to these facts:

Isolation – Mr. Jones’ children and friends live far away, he has no significant social contacts in his current living environment, his mobility is limited due to illness, Ms. Smith intercepts his telephone calls, and he is not allowed to talk to his children.

Dependency – Mr. Jones is emotionally dependent upon Ms. Smith, and she provides for his physical needs (food, cleaning, appointments, medicine). 

Emotional manipulation/Exploiting a weakness – Ms. Smith threatens to abandon Mr. Jones using his fear of loneliness.

Acquiescence – Mr. Jones agrees to Ms. Smith’s demands because he is frightened of being lonely, dependent upon her, and isolated from other social contacts and family. As a result, he gives her money and property, and makes her the sole beneficiary of his estate.

Loss – Mr. Jones suffers financial losses because of Ms. Smith’s threats and coercion. In this case, although criminal charges might have been pursued in some jurisdictions (ex. for elder abuse), the issue of “loss” was used only to support civil litigation.

Caveats and Suggestions:

Although it may seem obvious – do not rely only upon the litigants for information. The “Undue Influence Worksheet” and IDEAL are more effective if there are corroborating statements and observations by 3rd-parties, circumstantial evidence, and/or self-incriminating statements by the litigants. A case may be argued without such corroboration, but the use of IDEAL would be quite limited.

If more sophisticated analysis is needed, an expert should be contacted for advice regarding the development of both general and specific manipulation tactics, their relative impact, and assessment of pertinent cognitive issues (note: impaired cognition is common, but is not essential). These topics require extensive individual attention, and will not be presented in this introductory article.

Also, be cautious when retaining an expert on the issues of manipulation or undue influence. These are specialized fields and very few people are actual experts. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned mental health professionals claim this expertise without knowing how much training and knowledge is necessary.

Some attorneys report successful use of IDEAL without employing associated experts. In these cases, the attorney uses the information obtained through IDEAL and the “Worksheet” to craft a powerful and compelling argument – for either settlement or trial.