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A Florida will is meant to ensure that the deceased person’s wishes are carried out. But, when the testator is subjected to undue influence, he may end up with a will that doesn’t truly reflect what he would have wanted. If heirs or other interested parties suspect that the deceased was subject to undue influence, they have the option of contesting the will.
A will contest is a type of estate litigation in which an interested party asks the court to determine that the will is invalid. There are several reasons a will may be deemed invalid, some of them as simple as lacking a required signature. Undue influence, however, can be a bit trickier to demonstrate. Unsurprisingly, those who pressure or manipulate an elderly or ill person into leaving assets to them tend to act in private. Many are in a position to keep the testator isolated from other people who may recognize what is happening and intervene.
A will contest can’t be commenced until after the testator’s death. That means that by the time an undue influence claim is asserted in court, the person who is alleged to have asserted the influence may be the only one with firsthand knowledge of the events leading up to execution of the will. Recognizing the difficulty this present in successfully pursuing a will contest based on undue influence, Florida shifts the burden of proof to the beneficiary if the challenger to the will establishes certain facts. In other words, if these three elements are established, the court will presume that there was undue influence, and it will fall to the accused beneficiary to provide evidence that the testator was exercising his or her own judgment in the formation of the will.
In a will contest, as in most legal proceedings, the person bringing the claim carries the burden of proving his or her case. In a will contest based on a claim of undue influence, the person challenging the will does have the initial burden. In order to shift the burden of proof to the accused beneficiary in a Florida will contest claiming undue influence, the person challenging the will must establish that:
The first item is generally easy to establish, since the will on its face spells out the benefit the accused will receive. The relationship between the parties is also typically straightforward—a confidential relationship will generally be found when the accused was in a position of trust and the testator had a degree of reliance on him or her. Some examples include the testator’s attorney, doctor, or caregiver.
The third item, though, is a bit more nuanced. Early on, there was dispute about the degree of involvement necessary to show that the beneficiary had been active in procuring the will. The Florida Supreme Court provided a framework for that determination in a 1971 case. The result was a list of factors commonly referred to as the “Carpenter factors.”
These factors are:
None of the factors alone necessarily means that the beneficiary was active in procuring the will, and the factors don’t make up a checklist on which every box must be checked to show active procurement. And, the list isn’t exclusive—the court may consider additional factors.
If the court determines that a substantial beneficiary under the will enjoyed a confidential relationship with the testator and actively participating in procuring the will, the burden of proof shifts to the beneficiary.
It is important to understand that establishing the three elements above does not necessarily mean that the court will find that there was undue influence and the will is invalid. After all, people often knowingly and intentionally leave assets to the people closest to them, and on whom they have relied. Active procurement of a will may be a natural extension of the assistance a caretaker or close family member offers to an elderly or disabled person who may have difficulty managing his or her own affairs. So, the Carpenter factors themselves do not establish that undue influence impacted the terms of the will.
However, once the presumption attaches, it is up to the beneficiary to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she did not exert undue influence over the testator.
If the challenger to the will is unable to establish that the beneficiary received a significant benefit under the will, enjoyed a confidential relationship with the testator, and actively procured the will, the burden of proof will not shift. However, this does not necessarily mean that the court won’t find that there was undue influence and set aside the will. Rather, the burden stays with the person challenging the will to prove there was undue influence.
Whether you are a beneficiary who has been accused of undue influence and stand to lose your inheritance or you are an heir who believes your loved one was pressured or manipulated into drafting a will, effectively arguing your case can be complicated and stressful. An experienced local estate litigator can be your best resource as you fight to ensure that the deceased’s true wishes are carried out. You can take the first step right now by scheduling a consultation with Upchurch Law.
Summary: Florida Probate litigation lawyer Thomas Upchurch is an experienced undue influence lawyer handling these sensitive cases. Undue influence is one of the most common legal theories used in will contests. An area of controversy in Florida is the burden of proof of presumption of undue influence. Undue influence that is presumptive occurs when a fiduciary relationship exists between the testator and the individual alleged of exerting undue influence. Historically, if an attorney presented evidence sufficient to raise the issue of presumption of undue influence, the burden of proof shifted to the alleged to prove that no undue influence occurred.