Although the term “undue influence” is not susceptible to precise definition, it may be defined as a type of case that is filed in the probate court which challenges the legitimacy and lawfulness of any testamentary document such as a Trust or Last Will and Testament, deeds or any other transfers made during the lifetime of the decedent. Florida courts have held that the behavior of an individual charged with “undue influence”, as necessary to nullify a will, has to equate to force, duress, coercion, over-persuasion, or fraudulent or artful contrivances to such a high degree that there is a complete break down of the free agency and will power of the will-maker.
Distinction Between Undue Influence and Fraud
Furthermore, although undue influence is a category of fraud, it is not the same thing because fraud is accomplished by misrepresenting and deceiving, while undue influence may be accomplished without any fraud occurring at all. Deceptive conduct normally must be proved by circumstantial evidence and such circumstances may, by their frequency and joint consideration, be enough to constitute proof of fraud. Florida’s Supreme Court has held that undue influence is not typically exercised openly in the presence of others, so that it may be directly proved, therefore it may be shown by indirect evidence of facts and circumstances from which it may be inferred. No one set of facts or circumstances, when considered by alone, may be of much weight but when combined with other facts may be enough to establish the issue.
Burden of Proof in Undue Influence Cases
A party who challenges a conveyance on the basis of undue influence has the burden of proof throughout the court case. However, once the Plaintiff establishes that the Defendant of a deed had a confidential or fiduciary relationship with the grantor, there a presumption that the deed was made under the grantee’s undue influence arises ,and the burden to rebut the presumption and to prove that the transaction was bona fide is upon the grantee.
Illustration Where Presumption of Undue Influence is Not Rebutted in Deed Case
The lower court properly set aside a warranty deed where the parties stood in a highly confidential relationship and where there was a presumption of undue influence from the fact that the grantor was a physically and mentally infirm widow who was completely dominated, in personality and in physical and mental attributes, by the defendants; even absent such presumption, the direct evidence was sufficient to show that the grantor had no knowledge of what she signed and no intention at any time to convey the property to the defendants.
The results are different once the Defendant presents a reasonable explanation for his or her involvement in the testator’s affairs, the presumption of undue influence vanishes, and the court must then determine whether undue influence has been established by the greater weight of the evidence.
Illustration Where Presumption of Undue Influence is Rebutted in Deed Case
In an action by the personal representative of an estate against his brother to cancel the deed to their mother’s home on the ground of undue influence, the trial court’s canceling of the deed was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. The presumption of undue influence was dispelled by the brother’s explanation for aiding his mother in the transfer of the property, no exertion of undue influence was proven at trial, and there was no evidence that the mother was incompetent to handle her own affairs or was susceptible to being unduly influenced by others.
Illustration of Undue Influence in Will Case
The trial court properly revoked the probate of a will on the grounds of undue influence by the decedent’s son where the son, who was the principal beneficiary of the $800,000 estate and who was also the personal representative, was present at the initial conference and execution of the will following his suggestion to the decedent that her 1962 will was not legal in Florida, the son recommended an attorney to draw the will, a prepared paper of the general context of the purported will was written mostly by the son, the son sat through all conferences (both initial and at execution) with the attorney, the son advised the attorney of his father’s death and gave instructions for deletion of parts of the will pertaining to his father, the son along with the decedent had access to the will in a safety deposit box, and the son lived alone with the decedent in a confidential relationship after his father’s death and the day before the decedent’s death, had received from the decedent a gift of $6,000 even though there was no credible evidence that the son was more needy than the decedent’s daughter, who as the other beneficiary received only $10,000 under the will.
If you are involved in a Florida probate dispute such as Undue Influence, you should call Miami probate attorney Andrew J. Pascale. Mr. Pascale has significant experience litigating probate disputes and will speak to you about your case today.
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