Speculation About Undue Influence Will Not Win the Case

August 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

We’ve talked here before about what one needs to prove to make out a case of undue influence in a will contest. It’s not an easy case to make, and the proof must be clear and convincing

In the COA case of Estate of Strong: Johnson, et al. v. Washington, handed down July 16, 2013, contestants Johnson, Foster, Miller and Wright claimed that their father, Rev Strong, had been subjected to undue influence when he executed a will in 1986. Washington came to be appointed executrix of the contested will.

Under the terms of the will in question, Rev. Strong left $10,000 to Miller, and bequeathed some real property to Wright. All of the residuary estate went to his wife, Earnestine, who was the step-mother of the contestants. Johnson and Foster were disinherited.

The parties engaged in discovery, following which Washington filed a motion for summary judgment.

The contestants filed three affidavits in oppositiion to the motion, alleging that Earnestine had been controlling, and that Rev. Strong had stated on many occasions that he regretted marrying her. They averred that Earnestine would not even allow the contestants into the home to visit their father. The contestants admitted that their father had testamentary capacity at the time he executed the will, and that he was of sound mind, They emphasized that Rev. Strong was a private person who handled his own financial and business affairs. There was no proof that Rev. Strong was in poor health or suffered from any condition that made him dependent on Earnestine. The record also established that Earnestine was not present when Rev. Strong executed the will, and that he kept it in a safe deposit box to which Earnestine did not have access.

If the contestants made a triable issue for a jury, then, it turned on their allegations that Earnestine was overbearing and controlling. Did they make a case sufficient to get by MRCP 56?

The chancellor ruled that they did not, granted summary judgment, and the contestants appealed.

Here is how the COA addressed the issues, per Judge James:

¶12. The only evidence the Contestants have to support their assertion of undue influence is the three affidavits alleging that Earnestine was overpowering and controlling toward Rev. Strong. However, not one of the affidavits contains specific facts showing that Rev. Strong was improperly influenced by Earnestine during the execution of the disputed will. The Contestants’ blanket allegations do not pass muster to show a triable issue. “The trial court should only submit an issue to the jury when the evidence creates a question of fact over which reasonable jurors could disagree.” In re Last Will & Testament & Estate of Smith, 722 So. 2d 606, 611 (¶17) (Miss. 1998) (citing Vines v. Windham, 606 So. 2d 128, 131 (Miss. 1992)). Here, the evidence does not formulate a factual question over which reasonable jurors could disagree.

¶13. “A presumption of undue influence arises in a will contest when a beneficiary occupies a confidential relationship with the testator and there is active participation by the beneficiary in either procuring the will or in preparing the will.” [In re Last Will and Testament of] Smith, 722 So. 2d [606] at 611-12 (¶18) (citing Simm v. Adams, 529 So. 2d 611, 615 (Miss. 1988)). However, the existence of a confidential relationship, alone, does not automatically raise a presumption of undue influence. [In re Estate of] Laughter, 23 So. 3d [1055] at 1064 (¶37) (citing Wright v. Roberts, 797 So. 2d 992, 999 (¶21) (Miss. 2001)). There must be circumstances where the beneficiary in the relationship took some active part in preparing the will. Id. (citing Croft v. Alder, 237 Miss. 713, 723-24, 115 So. 2d 683, 686 (1959)). There is no evidence of undue influence here. As previously mentioned, there is nothing in the record to suggest that Rev. Strong was dependent upon Earnestine in any capacity. According to the Contestants, Rev. Strong was very independent and handled his own financial affairs. Earnestine was never granted power of attorney during their marriage. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Earnestine actively participated in the will’s preparation or was present during its execution.

The court also quoted from In re Estate of Pigg, 877 So.2d 406, 412 (Miss. App. 2003) as to what the contestants need to show to make a jury issue:

[¶10] … Those contesting a will need not present sufficient evidence to prove undue influence. The contestants, however, must at least raise sufficient question to cause jurors to conclude that the proponents failed to prove that the will was free of improper influence[.] . . . The jurors had to decide if the inferences of undue influence made the quantum of evidence in support of due execution less than a preponderance. The best evidence on the issue was the testimony of the subscribing witnesses and others who were present during the execution. From no one contemporaneously involved . . . was there any suggestion that Mrs. Pigg was unaware of what she was doing or that her personal desires had been overwhelmed by someone else. Doubts about due execution that arise solely from speculation are insufficient. That would be too light a counterweight to the evidence of proper execution. [Emphasis in original].

The counterweight sufficient to overcome evidence of proper execution is clear and convincing evidence that the 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 it has to be proven by clear and convincing evidence. It’s 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.

In this case the contestants’ proof fell short because they could only speculate that their father acted against his true wishes, and they had no proof that Earnestine was actually in a position to exercise undue influence. The mere facts that she was domineering and even alienating were not enough.

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