Inter Vivos Gifts Between Spouses — the Next Step

March 27, 2014 § 4 Comments

It’s been a little more than two years since we last visited the saga of the litigation between the estate of Patricia Langston and her surviving spouse, Mansfield Langston. You can detour and refresh your recollection at this link. The facts that led to the litigation between Patricia’s estate and her surviving husband and joint owner, Mansfield, are in that earlier post.

In that last report, the COA had reversed and rendered, concluding that there was no undue influence by Mansfield that would justify setting aside a deed and CD that Patricia had placed into their joint ownership during her lifetime.

Following that COA ruling, however, the MSSC ordered that the case be remanded to give the estate an opportunity to prove undue influence. In its opinion, finding the issue to be one of first impression, the MSSC formulated a new rule in Mississippi law, that “[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.”

The high court’s ruling as to spouses is in contrast with the general rule of inter vivos gifts, which is that, if you can establish a confidential relationship, a presumption arises that there was undue influence, which must be overcome by evidence of good faith.

On remand in this case the chancellor found no undue influence after applying the new rule. The estate appealed.

In Estate of Langston: Williams v. Langston, handed down March 18, 2014, the COA affirmed the chancellor.

The case is fact-intensive, and the chancellor resolved conflicting testimony in her findings. You can read the decision for yourself to see how any case you have might compare with the facts in this one. Suffice it to say that when you are striving to set aside spousal inter vivos gifts you have no presumption to aid you in scaling what is a rather steep jurisprudential cliff.

That would seem to me to be the end of the road for the Langston litigation. The MSSC had already clarified the law, and all that remained was for the chancellor to make her findings of fact and conclusions of law, which she did in due course. Now that the COA has blessed her ruling, I don’t see the MSSC taking it up again.

I think it’s a sound rule that a presumption does not arise out of the confidential relationship between spouses, because, after all, it’s the rare marriage that does not involve some degree of confidential relationship. Married couples make all sorts of decisions about joint ownership and exchanges of title based on what they judge to be in their mutual best interest. If all of those could be deemed presumptively questionable, we would see much more litigation, not much of which would benefit many folks.

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