UNDUE INFLUENCE IN INTER VIVOS GIFTS BETWEEN SPOUSES

February 28, 2011 § 6 Comments

Mansfield and Patricia were married in 1994, when both were in their 40’s. It was the second marriage for each, and they had children by the previous marriages. Patricia suffered health problems during the marriage, and she received a Phen-Phen settlement in 2001.

On March 15, 2002, Patricia executed a will devising her entire estate to her three adult children and her sister. The will included this language: “Mansfield Langston, my husband, has his own estate in his name, therefore no provision for him is made in this will.”

Soon after in 2002, there was a series of transactions between the parties that ultimately resulted in a home being titled in joint ownership between Mansfield and Patricia, with right of survivorship. The home had formerly been in her sole name. There were other related transactions, the most significant of which was that a $200,000 CD was converted to joint tenancy with right of survivorship.

On May 11, 2005, Patricia died of a sudden illness, and Patricia’s estate was opened by her mother. The estate sought to set aside the joint tenancies in the marital home and the certificate of deposit in order to bring those assets into the estate for distribution to the will beneficiaries, who were Patricia’s adult children and Patricia’s sister.

Following the trial, the chancellor found that a confidential relationship existed between Mansfield and Patricia. Therefore, the chancellor ruled that the burden shifted to Mansfield to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the creation of the joint tenancies was not the result of undue influence. The chancellor held that Mansfield did not meet this burden, and both joint tenancies were set aside and brought into Patricia’s estate.

In the case of Estate of Langston, in a well-reasoned, authoritative opinion by Judge Griffis, the COA on March 30, 2010, reversed the chancellor and held that the presumption of undue influence did not apply to inter vivos transactions between husband and wife.  The ruling in effect extended the prior rule that the presumption of undue influence did not apply to testamentary dispositions between spouses.

On February 24, 2011, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the COA in the case of Estate of Langston v. Williams in an opinion authored  by Justice Dickinson and joined by all but Graves, who has departed for his federal gig in New Orleans, that concludes with this key language:

“A confidential relationship between spouses does not create a presumption that one spouse used undue influence over the other to obtain an inter vivos gift. And one who claims the gift was the product of undue influence bears the burden of proof.”

The burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence.

The case was remanded to Sunflower County Chancery Court to allow the estate to make a record on the issue, since the chancellor had ruled (properly under the law in effect at the time) that such a presumption did exist, so that the estate was neither required to prove, nor was it given the opportunity to prove, undue influence.

It’s not uncommon for issues like these to surface in second marriages of older couples where there are children by a prior marriage.  If you find yourself being presented with undue influence claims in a similar case, I encourage you to read Judge Griffis’s COA opinion.  It’s about as good an exposition of all the applicable case law that you will find.

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