Undue Influence Legislation in California

Published in Center News

In 2009, San Francisco Probate Court undertook a research study funded by a Borchard Foundation Center on Law and Aging academic research grant awarded to Mary Joy Quinn and Deana Piazza. The subject of the study was the term "undue influence." The study was prompted by the California Probate Code section which lists undue influence as one of the criteria for the appointment of a conservator of estate. The term also appears more than 25 times in the California Probate Code. And yet, there was no definition of the term in the Probate Code.

The goal of the study was to illuminate information that could be used to develop a definition of undue influence. The elements of the study included: a literature review of sociological and psychological literature, a review of case law and statues in California, a search for definitions of undue influence in the other states, focus groups of practitioners, and case review of 25 newly established conservatorships.  To a remarkable degree, all these sources and various disciplines agreed on the elements of undue influence which are: a vulnerable victim, an influencer who has power, specific tactics and manipulations, and an outcome that is unfair to the victim. The study can be found on the website of the California Administrative Offices of the Courts at  www.courts.ca.gov/documents/UndueInfluence.pdf  The title of the study is “Undue Influence: Definitions and Applications.” 

The study also found that the only statutory definition of undue influence in California law was contained in the Civil Code which was enacted in 1872. That fact and other findings from the study prompted probate litigators and other community practitioners to work with legislators to develop a definition for the Probate Code which is now contained in California Probate Code section 86. The same definition is also contained in Welfare and Institutions code 15610.70 which addresses elder financial abuse.  The laws are identical and based on the four elements of undue influence found in the research study.  They became effective on January 1, 2014.