Florida Undue Influence Law
Aggressive Legal Representation in Your Pursuit for Justice
The most common challenge to the validity of a will or trust is undue influence. According to Florida law, if all or any portion of a will or trust is proven to be the product of undue influence, then the whole will or trust (or that portion procured by undue influence) is invalid. Undue influence is also grounds for invalidation of pay-on-death beneficiary designations and lifetime transfers and gifts.
What Is Considered Undue Influence?
Undue influence is a cause of action used to challenge the validity of a testamentary document, such as a will, trust, deed, and other transfers. As the Second District Court of Appeal in Florida noted in Heasley v. Evans, the conduct of a person charged with "undue influence, as it is required for invalidation of a will, must amount to over-persuasion, duress, force, coercion, or artful or fraudulent contrivances to such a degree that there is the destruction of the free agency and will power of the one making the will.”
Undue influence is a species of fraud that is proven through circumstantial evidence. Since undue influence is not usually exercised openly in the presence of others, it can be proved by indirect evidence of facts and circumstances from which it may be inferred. No one of such facts or circumstances, when considered alone, may be of much weight, but when combined with other facts, they might be sufficient to establish the issue.
Proving Undue Influence
Undue influence cases in Florida are proven through circumstantial evidence and involve a shifting burden of proof. Extensive discovery of estate planning records, medical records, and financial records is usually required to prove an undue influence case. According to F.S. §733.107(2), “t]he presumption of undue influence implements public policy against abuse of fiduciary or confidential relationships and is, therefore, a presumption shifting the burden of proof under.”
For the party challenging a will or trust on the grounds of undue influence, the challenge is determining what type of evidence is required to shift the burden of proof to the proponent of the will or trust, who is often the alleged undue influencer.
The seminal Florida Supreme Court case of In re: Estate of Carpenter held that a presumption of undue influence affecting the burden of proof arises when:
- Someone who has a substantial benefit under the will possessed a confidential relationship with the decedent and was active in the procurement of the will.
The Carpenter court reasoned that it would not be difficult to prove the first and second elements of the presumption of undue influence, but that the “active procurement” element would be more difficult. Accordingly, it provided guidance by articulating seven nonexclusive factors to help determine whether there was active procurement:
- The presence of the beneficiary at the execution of the will.
- The presence of the beneficiary at times when the testator expressed a desire to make the will.
- A recommendation by the beneficiary for an attorney to draw the will.
- Knowledge of the contents of the will by the beneficiary prior to execution.
- Giving instructions on preparation of the will by the beneficiary to the attorney drawing the will.
- Securing of witnesses to the will by the beneficiary.
- Safekeeping of the will by the beneficiary after its execution.
The Carpenter court stated that the aforementioned seven factors were neither mandatory nor exclusive. Additionally, Florida courts recognize at least three other indicators of active procurement:
- Isolating the testator and disparaging family members.
- Inequality of mental acuity between the decedent and the beneficiary.
- Reasonableness of the trust provision.
Shifting the Burden of Proof
In Florida, the presumption of undue influence shifts the burden of proof. “The presumption of undue influence implements public policy against abuse of fiduciary or confidential relationships and is, therefore, a presumption shifting the burden of proof.” Accordingly, the presumption of undue influence shifts the burden of proof and is not merely a vanishing or “bursting bubble” presumption. Once the presumption of undue influence is raised, the burden of proof is reversed, requiring the proponent of the challenged instrument to prove, by the greater weight of the evidence, that no undue influence occurred.
In an undue influence case, once proper execution of the Will (or trust) has been established, the individual challenging the documents has the burden of presenting evidence to prove the elements of undue influence by a preponderance of the evidence, which simply means the trier of fact finds it is more likely than not there was undue influence.
It is important to note that the Carpenter factors are not the elements of the cause of action of undue influence. They relate solely to the shifting burden of proof. Even if a will contestant cannot prove the Carpenter factors, they still might be able to prove undue influence if they have sufficient evidence to prove that the alleged undue influencer destroyed the free will and controlled the mind of the testator to such a degree that the resulting will or trust was the product of the mind of the undue influencer and not that of the testator.
However, if the contestant presents sufficient evidence to give rise to the presumption of undue influence, then the burden of proof shifts to the proponent of the document (who is usually also the alleged undue influencer) to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the will (or trust) was not the result of undue influence.
Our Talented & Experienced Litigators Proudly Take on Undue Influence Cases
Adrian Philip Thomas, P.A. is here to assist with your undue influence case. We possess a breadth of experience unique to our boutique law firm that makes us well-suited to guide you through this particular area of law. Our seasoned attorneys have extensive backgrounds in estate planning, uncontested probate and guardianship, law enforcement, and guardianship advocacy, all of which play an important role in pursuing undue influence cases.
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