Mental Inequality as a Factor in Undue Influence Lawsuits
As most probate litigators will acknowledge, one of the primary arguments for revoking a Will is that it was procured through the undue influence of another. Florida courts have defined “undue influence” as over-persuasion, duress, or coercion by one over the settlor of a Will to such a degree that the Will reflects the wishes of the undue influencer as opposed to the settlor. A key component in assessing and determining the merits of an undue influence claim is whether there existed a substantial and cognizable inequality between the mental sharpness between the settlor of the Will and the alleged undue influencer. Although medical and mental health records are often reviewed and submitted for evidence in such cases, this factor of ‘mental inequality’ is different than alleging that the settlor lacked testamentary capacity to execute such a Will in the first place.
In matters pertaining to undue influence, it is assumed that the settlor had testamentary capacity but that his mind was so weak when compared to the undue influencer that the validity of the Will is in question. In other words, the mental acuteness of the settlor and the undue influencer are compared, as opposed to simply evaluating the testamentary capacity of the settlor.
Several Florida courts have considered this factor of mental inequality. In the matter of In re Estate of Reid, 138 So.2d 342 (Fla. 3d DCA 1962), the court found that even though the settlor did not lack testamentary capacity in that case, her mental health was nevertheless “extremely weak” and found that she could be unduly influenced easily by the defendant. Moreover, the analysis of undue influence is factually specific to the settlor and the defendant in each matter (how an ordinary or reasonable person would have acted is not considered). This case and cases like it support the notion that lack of testamentary capacity is much more difficult to prove than the mental inequality factor in undue influence cases.
There are several nuances that must be considered and addressed when claiming that a Will is the product of undue influence. It is in your best interest to consult with an experienced probate litigator when determining whether to file a lawsuit based on such allegations.