We litigate Estates throughout Florida and one of the most significant issues I come across during will contests is the concept of undue influence. In this blog, I aim to help you comprehend the idea of undue influence, identify the criteria required to presume undue influence, and understand how this presumption can be refuted in Florida will contests.
What Does Undue Influence Mean?
Undue influence is a legal concept derived from the precedent set by Heasley v. Evans, 104 So.2d 854 (Fla. 2d DCA 1958) and Gardiner v. Goertner, 149 So. 186, 189 (Fla. 1932). It encompasses the over-persuasion, duress, coercion, or manipulation that effectively destroys the free will of the testator (the person making the will). While the presence of affection, kindness, or attachment might be factors in this scenario, they alone cannot amount to undue influence.
The Florida Supreme Court, as detailed in Gardiner v. Goertner, has summarized that undue influence sufficient to warrant the setting aside of a will must dethrone the testator’s free agency, making his act the product of another’s will instead of his own. The transaction’s nature, the testator’s mental condition, and the involved parties’ relationship are elements to consider when applying this rule.
Presumption of Undue Influence
Given the challenges in proving undue influence directly, Florida courts have established a system of presumption under certain conditions, as delineated in the Florida Supreme Court case Estate of Carpenter, 253 So.2d 697 (Fla. 1971). This seminal case identifies three criteria that must be met to raise the presumption of undue influence:
- A substantial beneficiary exists under the will.
- A confidential relationship is established with the testator.
- The substantial beneficiary is active in procuring the contested will.
Let’s examine these criteria more closely, referencing relevant case law.
The first criterion, as determined by Rand v. Giller, 489 So.2d 796 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986), states that the party accused of undue influence must significantly benefit from the contested will or challenged transfer. Mere nomination as a personal representative in a will does not confer the status of a “substantial beneficiary.”
As defined by the Florida Supreme Court in Quinn v. Phipps, 113 So. 419 (Fla. 1927), a confidential relationship is broad and can originate from various sources. It can exist wherever one person trusts and relies upon another, extending beyond legal relationships to encompass moral, social, domestic, or personal ones.
The third requirement, “active procurement,” was extensively addressed in Carpenter. Active procurement includes a range of actions such as:
- Presence of the beneficiary during the execution of the will
- Presence of the beneficiary when the testator expressed a desire to make a will
- Beneficiary’s recommendation of an attorney to draw the will
- Beneficiary’s knowledge of the will’s contents prior to execution
- Giving instructions on preparing the will by the beneficiary to the attorney
- Beneficiary securing witnesses to the will
- Beneficiary’s safekeeping of the will after execution
However, not all these elements need to be present to establish active procurement, and each case is factually unique (Carpenter, 253 So.2d at 702).
Rebutting the Presumption of Undue Influence
Once the Carpenter criteria are fulfilled, the presumption of undue influence arises, and the will is considered a product of undue influence. The burden then falls on the will’s proponent to demonstrate that the will was not influenced unduly, as outlined in Florida Statute § 733.107(2).
733.107 Burden of proof in contests; presumption of undue influence.—
(1) In all proceedings contesting the validity of a will, the burden shall be upon the proponent of the will to establish prima facie its formal execution and attestation. A self-proving affidavit executed in accordance with s. 732.503 or an oath of an attesting witness executed as required in s. 733.201(2) is admissible and establishes prima facie the formal execution and attestation of the will. Thereafter, the contestant shall have the burden of establishing the grounds on which the probate of the will is opposed or revocation is sought.
(2) In any transaction or event to which the presumption of undue influence applies, the presumption implements public policy against abuse of fiduciary or confidential relationships and is therefore a presumption shifting the burden of proof under ss. 90.301–90.304.
The Responsibility of the Will’s Supporter: In a legal dispute over the validity of a will, the person supporting the will (we’ll call them the “supporter”) must initially show proof that the will was properly created and witnessed. They can do this with a type of document called a self-proving affidavit or by having a witness swear an oath. Once the supporter has done this, the person challenging the will (let’s call them the “challenger”) must provide reasons why the will shouldn’t be honored.
The Assumption of Undue Influence: If there’s a suggestion of undue influence (basically, someone pressuring or manipulating the person who made the will), the law assumes that the challenger’s claims are correct. This assumption is in place to discourage people from taking advantage of confidential or trusted relationships. Once this assumption is made, it’s up to the supporter to provide proof that undue influence was not at play.
SELECTED CASE SUMMARIES
RBC Ministries v. Tompkins, 974 So. 2d 569 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2008): This case explained that if someone who benefits a lot from a will also had a close relationship with the deceased and played a major part in the creation of the will, it’s assumed there might have been undue influence. Once this is established, the person supporting the will must then prove that undue influence did not occur.
Lee v. Patton, 342 So. 2d 542 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1977): This case highlighted that the person who received a gift (donee) just needs to provide a reasonable explanation for their involvement in the donor’s affairs to argue against the assumption of undue influence.
Rocke v. Am. Research Bureau (In re Estate of Murphy), 184 So. 3d 1221 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016) and Case No. 2D14-4107 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. Nov. 6, 2015): These cases elaborated on the application of legal presumptions in civil cases, specifically when undue influence is suspected. In these instances, Florida law leans towards protecting against abuse in confidential relationships, thus shifting the responsibility to those opposing the application to prove there was no undue influence.
Marston v. Churchill, 137 Fla. 154 (Fla. 1939): This case stated that influence is considered “undue” when it’s so strong that the victim’s will is replaced by the influencer’s will. In an appeal, the appellant needs to demonstrate the error in the original decision.
Jacobs v. Vaillancourt, 634 So. 2d 667 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1994): This case outlined three requirements for establishing undue influence: a confidential relationship between parties, the benefiting party’s significant gain from a document like a will, and the same party’s active involvement in procuring the document. If there’s no active involvement, there’s no assumption of undue influence.
Howland v. Strahan, 219 So. 2d 472 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1969): In this case, it was affirmed that when a confidential relationship exists and the superior person in that relationship benefits, any transfers to that person are assumed to be due to undue influence. The superior person then has to prove that the transfers were genuine gifts.
Understanding undue influence is crucial in a will contest. By familiarizing yourself with these principles, you will be better prepared to handle such a contest, whether you are challenging or defending a will. Our office litigates Will disputes throughout the State of Florida. Give us a call for a free no obligation consultation.
-Brice Zoecklein, Esq.