The role of undue influence in New Mexico will contests

The laws of New Mexico give a great deal of deference to existing estate plans, and courts are hesitant to invalidate a will without a persuasive legal argument and a great deal of evidence. If you genuinely feel that a loved one did not intend his or her property be handled in the way defined in the will, though, you might be able to challenge it.

Must have a legal basis to contest

People generally have the right to do with their property what they wish, regardless of whether we would do it differently if we were in their place. That being said, will contests exist in order to ensure that vulnerable people - particularly the elderly - weren't conned, tricked, forced or otherwise convinced to bequeath their assets in a way they wouldn't have otherwise.

There are four main reasons why a will can be contested in a New Mexico court, and each of them can be very difficult to prove, since personal autonomy of the person who drafted the will (the "testator") must be respected. These are, in no particular order:

  • Undue influence
  • Lack of testamentary capacity
  • Fraud
  • Illegality of some or a portion of a will (meaning that either the will did not meet statutory requirements for validity or it purported unlawful action)

Undue influence

In this context, undue influence is manipulating someone to direct the manner in which property is left in a will, trust or other estate planning document. Undue influence can involve a wide range of activities, everything from physical force to instill fear in the testator to mental abuse and false promises to repeated subtle suggestions. Oftentimes, someone exerting undue influence may be a trusted caregiver (like a live-in nurse or housekeeper), distant relative, longtime friend or paid companion who ingratiated him or herself into the testator's life for the purpose of taking advantage.

It can be difficult to prove any will contest case, but undue influence is particularly hard to determine. However, a landmark New Mexico court case decided in 2009 - In Re: the Estate of Gregoria C DeBaca - provides a great deal of guidance. The DeBaca decision provides a number of factors that judges should consider when making determinations about undue influence, including:

  • Extreme old age of the testator
  • Weakened physical/mental condition
  • An "unnatural" or "unjust" disposition of property (contrary to previous declarations, wills, testaments or statements of the testator)
  • The person receiving the bequest participated in the "procurement" of the estate documents (i.e., he or she helped execute the will, updated beneficiary or bank account information, delivered documents to the testator for signature, etc.)
  • The person who allegedly exerted the undue influence had some level of domination or control over the testator
  • The process of bequeathing assets was done in relative secrecy
  • There was a lack of consideration for the bequest
  • Other "suspicious circumstances" exist

Even if all these factors are present in a given case, that doesn't necessarily mean that the testator was unduly influenced during the process of drafting or modifying his or her will. The court must consider the totality of the circumstances in order to find that undue influence played a part, and the strength of the argument provided to the judge can make a huge difference in the outcome of the case. In order to put your best "foot forward" to the court, have an experienced will contest litigation attorney - like those at Mucci Law - by your side.