ANATOMY OF A WILL CONTEST II: PROVING UNDUE INFLUENCE

September 21, 2010 § 5 Comments

We already took a look at testamentary capacity here.  This post deals with the other pole of the will contest:  undue influence.

A presumption of undue influence arises where a confidential relationship is proven to exist.  Estate of Holmes, 961 So.2d 674, 680 (Miss. 2007).  A confidential relationship does not have to be a legal one, and the relationship may be moral, domestic, or personal, and ” … the confidential relationship arises when a dominant over-mastering influence controls over a dependent person or trust, justifiably reposed.”  Murray v. Laird, 446 So.2d 575 (Miss. 1984).

A confidential relationship exists where one person is in a position to exercise dominant influence over the other because of the latter’s dependency on the former due to weakness of mind or body, or due to trust; the law considers such a relationship to be fiduciary in character.  Madden v. Rhodes, 626 So.2d 608, 617 (Miss. 1993).  The party seeking to prove existence of a confidential relationship must do so by clear and convincing evidence.  Whitworth v. Kines, Id. at 230.

In making its determination whether a confidential relationship exists, the trial court must consider the seven factors set out by the Mississippi Supreme Court in Dabney v. Hataway, 740 So.2d 915, 919 (Miss. 1999). Those factors are:

  1. Whether one person has to be taken care of by others.
  2. Whether one person maintains a close relationship with another.
  3. Whether one person is provided transportation and medical care by another.
  4. Whether one person maintains joint accounts with another.
  5. Whether one is physically or mentally weak.
  6. Whether one is of advanced age or poor health.
  7. Whether there exists a power of attorney between the one and the other.

After considering the seven factors, the court returns to the core question, which is whether the proof establishes that the dominant person in the relationship was in a position to exercise undue influence due to the other’s weakness of mind or body, or due to trust, and whether such has been proven by clear and convincing evidence. The question at this point is not necessarily whether the dominant person did or did not exercise dominant influence; rather, the issue is whether he was in a position to do so. If the answer to the inquiry is that there is clear and convincing evidence that the dominant person was indeed in a position to exercise undue influence, the presumption arises, and the burden shifts.

Once the presumption arises, it must be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. Estate of Pigg v. McClendon, 877 So.2d 406, 411 (Miss. App. 2003).

The proponent then has the burden of going forward with clear and convincing evidence in a three-prong test set out in Mullins v. Ratcliff, 515 So.2d 1183, 1193 (Miss. 1987). The three-prong Mullins test requires the proponent to prove:

  1. good faith on his part;
  2. the grantor’s full knowledge and deliberation of his actions and their consequences; and
  3. that the grantor or testator exhibited independent consent and action.

A will or conveyance is said to be the product of undue influence when an adviser has been so persistent and pressing that the testator’s free will and agency is suppressed.  See, Longtin v. Wilcher, 352 So.2d 808, 811 (Miss. 1977).

In order to determine whether the proponent acted in good faith as provided in the first prong of the Mullins test, the trial court must consider the five factors listed in Estate of Holmes, 961 So.2d 674, 680 (Miss. 2007).  Those factors are:

  1. The identity of the person seeking preparation of the instrument.
  2. The place of execution of the instrument and in whose presence.
  3. What consideration and fee were paid, if any.
  4. By whom paid.
  5. The secrecy or openness given the execution of the instrument.

The second prong of the Mullins test is the grantor’s full knowledge and deliberation of his actions and their consequences. In order to adjudicate this prong, the court must take into consideration the factors set out in Estate of Holmes, supra at 685-686.  Those factors and the court’s findings are as follows:

  1. His awareness of his total assets and their general value.
  2. An understanding by him of those persons who would be the natural inheritors of his bounty under the laws of descent and distribution or under a prior will and how the proposed change would affect that prior will or natural distribution.
  3. Whether non-relative beneficiaries would be excluded or included.
  4. Knowledge of who controls his finances and business, and by what method, and if controlled by the other, how dependent is the grantor/testator on him and how susceptible to his influence.

The third and last prong of the Mullins test is whether the decedent exhibited independent consent and action.  In Dean v. Kavanaugh, 920 So.2d 608, 622 (Miss. App. 1993), the Mississippi Court of Appeals stated that the best way to show independent consent and action is to establish that the testator/grantor had the benefit of advice of a competent person disconnected from the grantee and devoted solely to the testator/grantor’s interests.

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