When Influence is Undue

August 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

Kappi Jeffers filed suit against her sister, Korri Saget, claiming that their mother had been subject to Korri’s undue influence in changing life insurance and investment account beneficiaries, and making a will.

The will contest was the subject of a jury trial that resulted in a mistrial. All parties agreed that the evidence at the jury trial was identical to that on the remaining issues, and they submitted the case to the chancellor on the record made at the trial. The chancellor ruled that the evidence did not support a finding of undue influence, and Kappi appealed.

The COA affirmed in an April 23, 2018 opinion in Estate of Saget: Jeffers v. Saget, by Judge Greenlee. Since this opinion illuminates not only the law on point, but also shows how facts in these cases typically unfold, I have quoted at length:

¶9. Kappi raises three issues on appeal. First, she argues that the chancellor erred in finding that she, as the contestant, had the burden of proving undue influence. Secondly, she argues that the chancellor erred by not finding that once a confidential relationship was found between Korri and Rae, a presumption of undue influence arose. Thirdly, she argues that the chancellor erred in applying an incorrect legal standard regarding the presumption of undue influence. Finding that the chancellor’s determination was not manifestly in error, we affirm.

¶10. “Mississippi law is well-settled regarding . . . confidential relationships and undue influence.” Wheeler v. Wheeler, 125 So. 3d 689, 693 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). This law applies equally to testamentary and inter vivos gifts. Id. When asserting undue influence, the initial burden is on the contestant/plaintiff to show “by clear and convincing evidence, the existence of a confidential relationship between a grantor and a defendant grantee[.]” Howell v. May, 983 So. 2d 313, 318 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). The supreme court has stated that such a “confidential relationship arises when a dominant, over-mastering influence controls over a dependent person or trust, justifiably reposed.” Wright v. Roberts, 797 So. 2d 992, 998 (¶17) (Miss. 2001). Once the existence of a confidential relationship is shown, a presumption of undue influence arises, and “the burden of proof shifts to the beneficiary/grantee to show by clear and convincing evidence that the gift was not the product of undue influence.” Id. at (¶16). Further, the supreme court has enumerated several factors to be considered when determining the existence of the confidential relationship:

(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 has their medical care provided for 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, and (7) whether there exists a power of attorney between the one and another.

In re Estate of Lane, 930 So. 2d 421, 425 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (quoting In re Dabney, 740 So. 2d 915, 919 (¶12) (Miss. 1999)).

¶11. In the present case, Kappi asserts that the chancellor found that the required confidential relationship existed, and, therefore, the burden shifted to Korri to prove the nonexistence of her undue influence over Rae. However, Kappi’s assertion is neither supported by the evidence nor the record. The chancellor did not make a finding that Kappi had proven the required confidential relationship existed between Rae and Korri. [Fn 5] Moreover, in her judgment, the chancellor discussed and analyzed all seven of the Lane factors. From this analysis it is apparent that there was a lack of clear and convincing evidence of the existence of the required confidential relationship.

[Fn 5] The chancellor’s “Amended Final Judgment” does not find that a confidential relationship existed nor does it explicitly state that Kappi failed to prove a confidential relationship by clear and convincing evidence.

¶12. The chancellor, in her discussion of the Lane factors, found that: (1) insufficient evidence was produced to show Rae was taken care of by others; (2) Rae and Korri had a close relationship; (3) insufficient evidence was produced to show Rae was provided transportation or medical care by others; (4) Rae and Korri maintained a joint bank account; (5) Rae was not physically or mentally weak as she “knew what she wanted and was very clear about it;” (6) Rae was in poor health; and (7) there was no power of attorney. These determinations by the chancellor were supported by substantial evidence. We further note that Korri resided in Houston, Texas and Rae continued to live in Vicksburg, Mississippi until her death—over a year after the changes were made to the investment account designations. The chancellor was correct in not making a finding that clear and convincing evidence showed that Korri had exerted the required confidential relationship over Rae. The chancellor went further, finding that there was no undue influence exerted upon Rae in changing the beneficiaries on the investment accounts.

¶13. During the hearing on the matter, the chancellor heard from several witnesses including some of Rae’s family and friends. The chancellor found that there was conflicting testimony as to whether Rae was taken care of by others and whether Rae was provided transportation and medical care by others. Therefore, it was the chancellor’s job as trier of fact to determine which version she found more credible. LeBlanc v. Andrews, 931 So. 2d 683, 689 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006).

¶14. While the record clearly shows that Rae was in poor health, having had numerous surgeries and health issues, the record also indicates that she was a strong-willed woman who “knew what she wanted and was very clear about it.” Several non-family witnesses who spoke with Rae on the day she made the changes to the investment account beneficiaries testified that Rae appeared neither physically nor mentally weak. One such witness, Mittie Town Warren, a close friend of Rae’s, testified that “[Rae] knew what she had” and that “[w]hen she made her mind to do something, then that’s what she was going to do and she did it.” Further, Warren testified that she would see Rae two to three times per week and that on August 23, 2012, “[Rae] knew exactly what she was doing. Nobody influenced her.” Notwithstanding the assertion of Kappi on appeal, the chancellor did not find that Korri had the required confidential relationship with Rae. Furthermore, the chancellor was correct in finding that the beneficiary changes to the accounts were valid. [Fn 6]

[Fn 6] Though appellate courts would prefer that trial court judges make explicit findings on issues we review on appeal, when chancellors make decisions based upon substantial evidence and discuss the required factors leading to informed decisions, we should not reverse for form over substance. See Spain v. Holland, 483 So. 2d 318, 320 (Miss. 1989).

Some comments next week.

 

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