The Burden to Rebut the Presumption of Undue Influence

May 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Marquan Stover filed a contest to probate of his great aunt’s second codicil to her will, claiming that it was the product of undue influence. Following a hearing, the chancellor found no undue influence and dismissed his contest. Stover appealed, and the COA affirmed on May 8, 2018. He filed a petition for cert, which was granted.

In Stover v. Davis, handed down April 25, 2019, the MSSC reversed and remanded, holding that the chancellor had applied the wrong legal standard. Justice Beam wrote the opinion:

¶11. “The sole issue in a will contest is devisavit vel non, [Fn 3] or will or no will.” Trotter v. Trotter, 490 So. 2d 827, 833 (Miss. 1986). The proponent of the will has the burden of proof of the will’s validity, and this burden of proof stays with the proponent throughout the trial. Harris v. Sellers, 446 So. 2d 1012, 1014 (Miss. 1984). The proponent makes a prima facie case of validity when the will and record of probate are admitted into evidence. Id. At that point, the burden shifts to the contestant to produce evidence challenging the will’s validity. Clardy v. Nat’l Bank of Commerce of Miss., 555 So. 2d 64, 66 (Miss. 1989).

¶12. The contestant raises a presumption of undue influence by showing the existence of a confidential relationship between the testator and a beneficiary under the will, along with suspicious circumstances. Croft v. Alder, 237 Miss. 713, 723, 115 So. 2d 683, 686 (1959). Suspicious circumstances may include the testator’s mental infirmity or direct involvement of the beneficiary in the confidential relationship in preparing or executing the will. Id. at 686. When a presumption of undue influence arises, then the proponent of the will bears the burden to rebut the presumption with clear and convincing evidence that the will was not the result of undue influence. In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So. 2d 915, 921 (Miss. 1999) (citing Croft v. Alder, 237 Miss. 713, 115 So. 2d 683, 686 (1959)). To rebut the presumption, the proponent must show three things: “(a) good faith on the part of the beneficiary, (b) the testatrix’s full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and (c) the testatrix received the advice of a competent person disconnected from the beneficiary and devoted wholly to him.” Id. at 921 (citing Murray v. Laird, 446 So. 2d 575, 578 (Miss. 1984)).

[Fn 3] Devisavit vel non means “he (or she) devises or not.” Devisavit vel non, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). “An issue directed from a chancery court to a court of law to determine the validity of a will that has been contested, as by an allegation of fraud or testamentary incapacity. Id.

¶13. As the Court of Appeals recognized, the chancellor made no findings on whether a confidential relationship had existed between Robinson and Davis or whether a presumption of undue influence arose. Stover, 2018 WL 2110017, at *24. Yet the Court of Appeals held that, even if a presumption of undue influence had arisen, Davis rebutted it, because clear and convincing evidence existed in the record to satisfy the three-prong test. Stover, 2018 WL 2110017, at *27. We disagree. The record shows that the chancellor found that Davis had made a prima facie case of the will’s validity and that Stover had not met his burden to show that the second codicil was the product of undue influence. The chancellor misstated the burden of proof as preponderance of the evidence when the burden for a presumption of undue influence is clear and convincing. See In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So. 2d at 921 (citing Croft, 115 So. 2d at 686). Further, the record does not show the burden-shifting scheme set forth above. If a presumption of undue influence had, in fact, arisen, then Stover did meet his burden, and Davis, the proponent of the will and codicils, bore the burden to rebut the presumption with clear and convincing evidence.

¶14. As the chancellor rightly found, Davis’s submission of the will and the record of probate and its receipt into evidence established a prima facie case of the will’s validity. But Stover’s proof raised a presumption of undue influence, because he showed that Davis was in a confidential relationship with Robinson when the second codicil was executed and that the second codicil had been executed under suspicious circumstances.

¶15. Because Davis was Robinson’s duly appointed conservator, a confidential relationship was established. We have held that “[a] conservator stands in the position of a trustee, has a fiduciary relationship with the ward and is charged with a duty of loyalty toward the ward.” Bryan v. Holzer, 589 So. 2d 648, 657 (Miss. 1991). While the existence of a conservatorship alone is not immediate grounds for undue influence, the courts should not take lightly the role, power, trust, and influence of the conservatorship relationship between the person or ward and his or her conservator. Wards deserve the most meticulous judicial scrutiny in situations such as this to ensure the ward’s protection. When a confidential relationship exists, coupled with suspicious circumstances, the proponent of the will bears the burden of rebutting the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.

¶16. Suspicious circumstances were shown by the undisputed evidence that Robinson suffered from dementia. A conservatorship had been established for Robinson in 2006, and Davis, who stepped into the role of conservator after Myers died, was directly involved in the preparation of the will. Davis testified that she discussed the will with Robinson. Davis reminded Robinson of the deaths of a named beneficiary and the executrix, and the changes made in the codicil were both to Davis’s benefit. Davis called Attorney Moss on her own cell phone to initiate the process of procuring the second codicil. Given that these facts were uncontested, the burden shifted to Davis to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, “(a) good faith on the part of the beneficiary, (b) the testatrix’s full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and (c) [that] the testatrix received the advice of a competent person disconnected from the beneficiary and devoted wholly to him.” In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So. 2d at 921(citing Murray, 446 So. 2d at 578).

¶17. Because the chancellor erroneously did not recognize that a presumption of undue influence had arisen, the chancellor made no findings of fact on the three-part test for determining whether Davis had rebutted the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. Instead, the chancellor found that Stover had not met his burden. But Stover had, in fact, met his burden of production, resulting in the burden’s shifting to Davis to rebut the presumption with clear and convincing evidence. Because the evidence was such that the chancellor reasonably could have found either that Davis had rebutted the presumption or that she had not, we reverse the decisions of both courts and remand to the chancery court for factfinding on whether Davis rebutted the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.

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