In many probate litigations, a testator’s Last Will and Testament (“Will”) or a trust can be subject to a claim for undue influence.
What Is Undue Influence?
Undue influence is a difficult and complicated concept—difficult to define and very difficult to legislate.
As a result, each state has its own laws and caselaw defining undue influence—what it is, and what evidence is needed to prove it.
Generally speaking, it can be understood as the overpowering of another person’s free will by means of duress, over persuasion, coercion, or fraud. It’s a form of mental and emotional abuse.
It occurs in situations where one person is in a position of superior authority and power over another. This can be emotional, psychological, or physical superiority. Either way, the person exerting the undue influence applies pressure (physical, emotional, or psychological) to coerce the vulnerable person into making decisions that are to that person’s disadvantage, and the “undue influencer’s” advantage.
Undue influence can arise in any number of cases, including civil contract disputes.
In estate and probate law, it most frequently arises when there are disputes over a testator’s Will, or the terms of a trust, or in cases involving petitions for guardianships or conservatorships.
Proving Undue Influence
In Plantation Florida, where we practice, the courts look to more than seven factors when analyzing claims of undue influence.
For example, in Will contest cases, the parties claiming the testator was unduly influenced by a substantial beneficiary must prove that the beneficiary and the testator had a confidential relationship and that the beneficiary actively procured the Will.
Caselaw has developed seven (7) factors, which, if proved, can help to establish active procurement.
Because it is such an abusive and reprehensible act by a confidential party, Florida’s statutory law creates a burden shifting presumption to preserve the presumption of undue influence from being too easily lost.
When factors indicating active procurement are established, the presumption arises and the burden shifts to the party opposing the claim to disprove it—in other words, to prove that there was no undue influence.
Proving a negative (i.e., that something did not exist) is quite challenging. Proving undue influence did not exist, then, can be almost impossible.
However, the courts have recognized several lifestyle factors of a testator that, if they existed, can go far towards disproving the existence of undue influence.
The Testator Lived Independently and Controlled His/her Daily Life
If proof exists that the testator was able to live on his or her own until his/her death, this can go far towards disproving a claim of undue influence.
Because in most cases, the facts revolve around a weak and dependent (i.e., vulnerable) testator who relied on the more powerful beneficiary who, it is alleged, ultimately unduly influenced the testator.
If proof exists that the testator lived alone and managed his/her daily affairs, this points to a level of independence and ability to think for himself/herself that can contradict the argument that the testator completely relied on the beneficiary.
Ability to Manage His/her Financial Affairs
Another lifestyle factor that can help to disprove its existence is when the testator is able to manage his/her finances himself during his lifetime.
Why would that contradict the claim?
Because, it is believed, being able to handle one’s finances oneself shows a level of mental acuity and independent thinking that negates being highly influenced by someone else.
The flip-side of that, in other words, not being able to independently handle one’s own financial affairs, can be a factor in a undue influence determination.
Probate Litigation Involving Undue Influence is Complicated
The above are only two (2) lifestyle factors that can be presented as evidence to prove or disprove a claim of undue influence. There are many more.
It is important to keep in mind that no single factor is determinative.
The evidence in these cases is circumstantial, and whether a testator was unduly influenced by someone else or not must be decided by closely examining the entire situation in detail and in context.
We’re Here to Help.
At the Law Offices of Samantha J. Fitzgerald protecting your family is just a phone call away. We understand how difficult probate litigation can be for clients. With offices in Plantation, Florida, we expertly assist individuals throughout Florida to navigate the complex probate process. Contact us here or give us a call at 954-580-3690.