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.

The Limits of In Terrorem

May 21, 2019 § 1 Comment

Back in 2014, the MSSC tacked on a good faith exception to in terrorem clauses in wills and trusts. The case was Parker v. Benoist, and you can read a post about it at this link.

Fast forward to 2019, and the in terrorem issue was once again before the appellate courts, this time the COA, and this time with a peculiar set of facts.

Joan Roosa, widow of Colonel Stuart Roosa, an astronaut on the Apollo 14 moon mission, executed her will in 2002. She followed with two codicils in 2004 and 2007. The 2002 will bequeathed her estate among all of her children and grand children. The 2007 codicil left everything to her daughter Rosemary. The 2002 will included an in terrorem clause.

The original will was admitted to probate, and shortly after Rosemary submitted the two codicils. The other children and grandchildren (led by Joan’s son Christopher) contested the validity of the second codicil charging that Rosemary had exercised undue influence. They also contended that Rosemary had triggered the forfeiture provision of the in terrorem clause.

A jury was empaneled to consider the issue of devisavit vel non as to the second codicil. It returned a verdict finding it not to be valid.

On the issue of forfeiture, the chancellor ruled that Rosemary had acted in good faith and denied the request that she be deemed to have forfeited her bequest under the will.

Christopher appealed on several issues, but for our purposes we will focus on the chancellor’s ruling on the forfeiture.

The COA affirmed in Estate of Roosa: Roosa v. Roosa, decided April 23, 2019. Judge McCarty wrote the opinion for the court:

¶8. The chancery court found that Rosemary should not forfeit her share of her mother’s estate due to attempting to probate the second codicil. Christopher argues that the forfeiture provision should be enforced against Rosemary because she did not act in good faith when submitting the second codicil for probate. In response, Rosemary argues that submitting a codicil for probate is not contesting the will, so the forfeiture provision is not triggered at all. Alternatively, Rosemary contends that the forfeiture provision is not applicable since she submitted the second codicil in good faith.

¶9. An in terrorem clause in a will acts to frighten a beneficiary that any benefit they might receive will be forfeited if they contest or otherwise dispute the validity of the will. See Taylor v. Rapp, 124 S.E.2d 271, 272 (Ga. 1962). Joan’s will contained just such a forfeiture provision. It read in relevant part:

If any beneficiary hereunder shall contest the probate or validity of this Will or any provision thereof, or shall institute or join in (except as a party defendant) any proceeding to contest the validity of this Will or to prevent any provision thereof from being carried out in accordance with its terms (regardless of whether or not such proceedings are instituted in good faith and with probable cause), than all benefits provided for such beneficiary are revoked and such benefits shall pass to the residuary beneficiaries of this Will (other than such beneficiary) in the proportion that the share of each such residuary beneficiary bears to the aggregate of the effective shares of the residuary.

¶10. The forfeiture clause explicitly states that “regardless” of whether a beneficiary starts proceedings “in good faith and with probable cause” that they will be forfeited from benefitting under the estate. During the life of the litigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court declared forfeiture provisions like this unenforceable as a matter of law. See Parker v. Benoist, 160 So. 3d 198, 205 (¶15) (Miss. 2015). The Court held that “[a] strict interpretation of no-contest provisions in wills would hamper courts’ goal of determining what is, once and for all, the will of the testator,” and that “[a] bona fide inquiry into the validity of the will should not be defeated by language contained in the will itself.” Id. at 206. As a result, if a will contained a forfeiture provision, it also had to have a requirement that it would only be enforced if it had a good faith exception. Id.

¶11. Rosemary’s will contained the exact same forfeiture provision that the Supreme Court held unenforceable in Parker. Id. at 203 (¶9). As a result, the chancery court found that “as a matter of law the [forfeiture] clause in this case is unenforceable because it fails to contain a good faith exception.” This does not delete the forfeiture provision but instead reforms it to include an exception for good faith actions by beneficiaries. Id. at 205-06 (¶¶12-15).

¶12. The first question we must resolve is whether the forfeiture clause even applies to Rosemary. Her argument on appeal is that it cannot be applied since she did not contest the will per se but instead only submitted the second codicil for probate. However, the plain language of Joan’s will captures more conduct than simply contesting the will. The forfeiture clause applies when any beneficiary tries to “prevent any provision [of the will] from being carried out in accordance with its terms . . . .” The second codicil Rosemary submitted to probate dramatically changed the amounts her siblings would take under their mother’s will (among other significant changes). Under the express language of the forfeiture provision in Joan’s will and the specific nature of the second codicil, we find that the forfeiture provision is applicable to Rosemary.

¶13. This does not end the inquiry, as we must determine whether Rosemary acted in good faith in submitting the second codicil for probate. In Parker, our Supreme Court noted that the evidence was sufficient for it to determine good faith and probable cause, rather than remand for the chancery court to conduct an inquiry. Id. at 206-07 (¶16). Likewise, we will determine if sufficient evidence supports Rosemary’s claim that she submitted the second codicil in good faith and based on probable cause. In the context of a will contest, “[p]robable cause exists when, at the time of instituting the proceeding, there was evidence that would lead a reasonable person, properly informed and advised, to conclude that there was a substantial likelihood that the challenge would be successful.” Id. at 206 (¶15) (quoting Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers § 8.5 cmt. c. (2003)). “The determination of good faith and probable cause should be inferred from the totality of the circumstances.” Id.

The court went on to analyze the facts and concluded that Rosemary had acted in good faith, affirming the chancellor.

This case is a reminder of two points: (1) that an in terrorem clause is enforceable if it includes a good faith provision; and (2) that if an in terrorem clause does not include good faith language the court will reform it to include a good-faith exception.

The Effect of Termination of Parental Rights on Wrongful Death Beneficiary Status

March 6, 2019 § Leave a comment

DeForest filed a petition in chancery court to have himself declared to be the sole wrongful death beneficiary of his father, Underhill, who had been killed in a trucking accident in Mississippi. DeForest’s petition was contested by Underhill’s brother, Alexander, who took the position that DeForest’s claim was defeated by the fact that Underhill’s parental rights to DeForest had been voluntarily terminated in Michigan in 1983 as part of an adoption action filed by Underhill’s ex-wife seeking to allow the child’s step-father to adopt him. The statute under which the TPR was made included this language:

” … an adopted child is no longer an heir at law of a parent whose rights have been terminated under this chapter … “

The chancellor rejected Alexander’s argument, ruling that Mississippi law governed, and that our law provides that TPR does not preclude his ststus as wrongful death beneficiary. The trial court relied on the case of Estate of Jones v. Howell, 687 So.2d 1171 (Miss. 1996). Alexander appealed.

The MSSC affirmed in Alexander v. DeForest, decided January 31, 2019. Citing Howell, Justice Coleman’s opinion upheld the chancellor’s ruling:

¶14. In Howell, the Court was faced with a similar scenario wherein Warren County Chancery Court held that the decedent’s natural son, who had been adopted by another man, was a wrongful death beneficiary. Howell, 687 So. 2d at 1173. The Court explained that it had

previously addressed the issues now before this Court in Alack v. Phelps, 230 So. 2d 789, 793 (Miss. 1970), and Warren v. Foster, 450 So. 2d 786 (Miss. 1984). In [both cases], this Court held that an adopted child could inherit from his natural parent or parents. Moreover, in Alack, this Court held than an adopted child could bring a wrongful death action for his natural father’s death.

Id. The decedent’s natural son, Samuel Howell, had been adopted by the natural mother’s new husband; the adoption had occurred in Louisiana. Id. at 1174. The Court summarized the appellant’s arguments as follows:

The Estate argues that when we read [Mississippi Code Annotated Section] 11–7–13 (Mississippi’s wrongful death statute) in pari materia with[Mississippi Code Annotated Section] 93–17–13 (Mississippi’s adoption decree statute), we must conclude that the legislature intended that Samuel Howell Clinton’s rights to bring a wrongful death action for his natural father’s death be terminated at the time of adoption. Further, the Estate argues that this Court is obligated under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Article I, Section 4, of the United States Constitution to apply Louisiana’s adoption law to the case sub judice. Specifically, the Estate argues that because Samuel Clinton Howell was adopted in Louisiana, we must look to Louisiana law to determine whether or not an adopted child can inherit from his natural parent. Under Louisiana decisional law, the Estate contends, a child who has been given up for adoption cannot inherit from his natural parent or parents. See Simmons v. Brooks, 342 So. 2d 236 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1977).

Id. The Court then thoroughly addressed the issue and argument presented. Relevant to the instant case is the following:

When dealing with the issue of adopted children bringing wrongful death actions for the death(s) of their natural parent(s), this Court has looked to Mississippi case law which holds that an adopted child can inherit from his natural parent(s). See, e.g., Sledge v. Floyd, 139 Miss. 398, 104 So. 163 (1925). This Court, by analogy, has cited our law allowing adopted children to inherit from their natural parents and applied the inheritance rule to wrongful death situations and, thus, allowed an adopted child to bring a wrongful death action for the death of his or her natural parent. See, e.g., Alack. We also note that none of the statutes in question, i.e., Section 11–7–13 or Section 93–17–13, specifically prohibits an adopted child from bringing a wrongful death action for his natural parent’s death. In fact, Section 93–17–13 only goes so far as to take away the natural parent’s and sibling’s right to inherit from, and bring a wrongful death action for the death of, a child given up for adoption. McLemore [v. Gammon], 468 So. 2d [84, 84] (Miss. 1985). Section 93–17–13 does not expressly take away the adopted child’s rights to inherit from the natural parent or to bring a wrongful death action for the natural parent’s death.

Moreover, Section 11–7–13 does not distinguish between the types of children entitled to bring a wrongful death action for the death of a parent, i.e., natural or adoptive. The statute provides that the suit may be brought “in the name of a child for the death of a parent.” Miss. Code Ann. § 11–7–13 (1972). While Samuel Clinton Howell was not Jones’ legal child, he certainly was his biological and natural child. Mississippi’s wrongful death statute allows an illegitimate child to bring a wrongful death action for the death of his parent provided the child complies with Section 91–1–15 of the Mississippi Code of 1972. It would be illogical to conclude that the legislature would allow an
illegitimate child, who might have never had any interaction at all with his parent or have ever been recognized by the parent, to bring an action for that parent’s wrongful death, and yet conclude that the legislature would then prohibit a child who had lived with the natural parent and was later given up for adoption from bringing a wrongful death action for the natural parent’s death.

The Estate also argues that the Louisiana adoption of Samuel Clinton Howell took the form of a termination of parental rights as to Jones. The Estate offers Miss. Code Ann. § 93–15–109 for the proposition that the chancery court can terminate an adopted child’s right to inherit from his or her natural parents. The Estate’s reliance upon Section 93–15–109 is misplaced because the cited statute, although not factually applicable in this case, does not specifically divest an adopted child of his right to bring a wrongful death action for a natural parent’s death.

Id. at 1176-77. The Court has squarely addressed a nearly identical issue, and in that case held that the natural son was a wrongful death beneficiary, despite the fact that the state where the adoption and termination of parental rights occurred prohibited him being considered a wrongful death beneficiary.

 

Process to Determine Wrongful Death Beneficiaries

March 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

When you file an action to determine wrongful-death beneficiaries, which type of process is proper: MRCP 4 or 81?

Matthew DeForest filed a Petition for Determination of Heirs-at-Law and Wrongful Death Beneficiaries after his father died in a trucking accident. Joe Alexander, the father’s brother, filed a contest asserting several defenses, among them that the court did not have personal jurisdiction over him because the proper process was not used. The chancellor ruled for DeForest, finding that “Matthew Bryan DeForest is the sole and only heir-at-law of the decedent for the purposes of the wrongful death action.” Alexander appealed.

In Alexander v. DeForest, decided January 31, 2019, the MSSC affirmed. Justice Coleman wrote for the unanimous court (Waller not participating):

¶7. In his first issue, Alexander argues that DeForest’s petition should have been dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(4) for lack of personal jurisdiction because process was insufficient. According to Alexander, he should have been served process consistent with Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 81(d)(1) as opposed to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 4(b).

¶8. Alexander argues that the chancery court’s judgment is void because it never had personal jurisdiction over him due to DeForest’s failure to serve him with a Rule 81 summons. Alexander explains that “An action to determine heirship is governed by Rule 81(d)(1) for which a summons substantially conforming with Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure Form 1(D) should issue to known and unknown respondents.”

¶9. DeForest caused Alexander to be personally served with a summons via certified mail. The summons stated that a response must be mailed or delivered within thirty days from the date of the delivery. However, the record also contains another summons. The second summons is a summons by publication addressed to “The Unknown Wrongful Death Heirs, Executors, Administrators, Devisees, Legatees, or Statutory Beneficiaries . . . of Jeff Underhill, Deceased, and Any and All Persons Claiming to be a Wrongful Death Beneficiary of Jeff Underhill, Deceased.” The body of the summons contained the following statement:

“The only other respondents other than you in this action are Jeanne Elizabeth Tyler, Joe Alexander, Sam Underhill, Tyler Alexander, and Luke Underhill.” Additionally, the summons required anyone claiming to be a wrongful death beneficiary “to appear and defend against the Petition filed by Matthew Bryan DeForest against you in this action 9:30 A.M. on the 21st day of October, 2016, . . . .” DeForest’s position is that, cumulatively, the personal summons and summons by publication gave Alexander sufficient notice as required by law.

¶10. We hold that in the instant case, the Rule 4 summons was sufficient, as the instant matter to determine wrongful death beneficiaries is not one of a determination of heirship as contemplated by Rule 81. In Long v. McKinney, 897 So. 2d 160, 175-76 (¶ 67) (Miss. 2004), we explained,

“Although there is no specific mandated procedure for the identification of wrongful death beneficiaries, a chancery court may make such determinations; those persons bringing the wrongful death action, together with their counsel, have a duty to identify the beneficiaries, and they should do so early in the proceedings.” Further, the Court has explained on several occasions that a “wrongful death action is not part of the estate of the deceased, and only those individuals listed in the wrongful death statute may bring this independent cause of action.” Pannell v. Guess, 671 So. 2d 1310, 1313 (Miss. 1996) (citing Partyka v. Yazoo Dev. Corp., 376 So. 2d 646, 650 (Miss. 1979)).

¶11. Though there is much terminology overlap and mirroring of language between a determination of heirs for the purpose of an estate and a determination of wrongful death beneficiaries, the only possible issue before the chancery court at the time was a determination of wrongful death beneficiaries, which is a different animal than a determination of heirship as governed by Mississippi Code Section 91-1-29. A determination of wrongful death beneficiaries does not require a Rule 81 summons; therefore, the Rule 4 summons DeForest caused to be served on Alexander was sufficient for the chancery court to obtain jurisdiction.

My thoughts:

  • Plenty of lawyers do not appreciate the difference between an action to determine heirs in an estate and an action to determine wrongful death beneficiaries that is outside an estate. The former is a R81(d)(1) matter, and the latter is a R4 matter. I have had to send lawyers back to the drafting table time after time because they mix up the two. And although there is some overlap between the laws of heirship and the law of wrongful-death beneficiaries, the two are actually different.
  • Before you go diving off into a chancery action to determine wrongful-death beneficiaries, the following is required reading: MCA §§ 91-1-1 and 3 (descent and distribution); MCA § 11-7-13 (wrongful death actions); UCCR 6.10 (petitions in chancery to compromise settlements); and Long v. McKinney, cited above. Only after you grasp all of that in combination should you file your petition.
  • In this case, DeForest made his job more difficult by casting his pleading as one to determine heirs and wrongful-death beneficiaries. It not only opened him to the defense of bad process, but probably caused some consternation to the chancellor who nonetheless plowed ahead and found DeForest to be “the sole and only heir-at-law of the decedent for purposes of the wrongful death action,” a correct, if confusedly worded,  conclusion no doubt dictated by DeForest’s confusing prayer for relief. DeForest should have filed two different pleadings, one for determination of heirship and one for determination of Wrongful death beneficiaries, with two different processes.

Alexander also argued that DeForest’s claim to be sole wrongful-death beneficiary was defeated by the fact that his father’s parental rights had been terminated by judgment of a Michigan court. We’ll explore that intriguing proposition in a later post.

Big Changes Proposed for Probate

January 7, 2019 § 2 Comments

Secretary of State Hoseman convened a group to study and propose revisions to our estate and other fiduciary laws. Here is the summary provided by his office generally outlining the proposed statutory changes:

Revisions to Title 91 of the Mississippi Code governing estates and trusts will update statutory language and processes to provide clarity and ease of use for Mississippians. New statutes will be incorporated recognizing nonprobate transfers, ancillary and foreign administration, abatement, disclaimer of property interests, and revocation of probate and nonprobate transfers following divorce.

• Mississippi Real Property Transfer on Death Act “Transfer on Death Deed”: Enact a new statute to provide for nonprobate transfers of real property at death.

Example: John prepares before his death a transfer on death deed leaving his home to his two children so that his heirs may avoid probating the estate for purposes of transferring ownership of the family home. John’s transfer on death deed must be recorded, is only effective after his death, and is revocable at any time before his death.

• The Uniform Estate Tax Apportionment Act of 2003: Repeal Sections 27-10-1 through 27-10-25, the Uniform Estate Apportionment Act, and replace with the updated 2003 Uniform Estate Tax Apportionment Act under Title 91. The version of Uniform Estate Tax Apportionment Act previously adopted in Mississippi was originally drafted in the 1960s. In the last 50 years or so, people are using a revocable trust as a substitute for will and are using other forms of ownership to transfer assets at death. The federal estate tax provisions have also been substantially revised. The current version of the Uniform Estate Tax Apportionment Act recognizes these changes and provides detailed provisions for the apportionment of estate taxes when a decedent’s will or revocable trust does not provide for apportionment of estate taxes.

Examples: John executed a revocable trust during his lifetime. The revocable trust includes all of the provisions for the disposition of John’s property and provisions for the apportionment of estate taxes, if any, to various property. John’s will provides that all of his probate property is to be distributed to his revocable trust after his death. Unlike the previous version of the Uniform Estate Tax Apportionment Act, the more recent version of the Act makes it clear that the apportionment of estate taxes under the terms of the revocable trust will be respected.

John died without a surviving spouse. John’s executor filed a federal estate tax return reflecting a $1,000,000 federal estate tax liability. John’s will did not have provisions stating which assets should be used to satisfy the federal estate tax liability. Fifty percent (50%) of the assets includible in the taxable estate were owned by John at his death (“Probate Assets”) and Fifty Percent (50%) passed outside of probate by beneficiary designation, rights of survivorship or were held in his revocable trust (“Nonprobate Assets”). Generally, under the Uniform Estate Tax Apportionment Act, $500,000 of the estate taxes will be apportioned ratably to the Probate Assets and $500,000 ratably to the Nonprobate Assets. The Uniform Estate Tax Apportionment Act has provisions for payment of the estate tax and the process for collecting the apportioned estate taxes from the persons receiving the Nonprobate Assets.

• Affidavit of Successor: Amend Section 91-7-322, commonly referred to as the Small Estate Affidavit, to clarify the definition of successor and to increase the value of the probate estate to $100,000. This statute allows the transfer of personal property without the necessity of probate when the decedent’s probate estate is $100,000 or less.

Example: John dies leaving an estate, not including real estate or exempt property, which totals $60,000. Thirty days after John’s death, his spouse, Jane, would be able to present an affidavit to anyone possessing John’s personal property or owing a debt to him and have the property or payment of a debt transferred to Jane without the necessity of a probate proceeding.

• Fiduciary Transfer of Negotiable Paper: Amend Section 91-7-255 to permit a fiduciary to negotiate paper belonging to the estate without court approval and to update the standard of care applicable to the fiduciary. Often a fiduciary may need to enter into a transaction quickly to prevent a decline in value of stocks, bonds and other investments or to diversify investments when investments are too concentrated in a single investment.

Example: John’s son, Jim, becomes the court-appointed executor. Through his appointment Jim is granted the ability to trade or sell stocks, transfer any notes, convert certificates deposit and make other financial decisions necessary for the preservation of the probate estate. Jim is held to the same standard of care applicable to a trustee.

• Property Not to be Removed from State: Repeal Section 91-7-257 as this Section is no longer applicable. Often a will of a Mississippi resident designates a child or children living in another state as executor. In order to preserve or protect assets belonging to an estate, such as jewelry, silver, car, personal effects and other items of value from the decedent’s personal residence, an executor may need to remove the property for safekeeping during the administration of the estate.

• Foreign Personal Representatives and Ancillary Administration: Repeal Section 91-7-259, Foreign Fiduciaries, Lawsuits and Debts, and enact Foreign Personal Representatives and Ancillary Administration to provide a clear process for foreign personal representatives and ancillary administration. This amendment will bring Mississippi current with every other State in the nation.

Example: John is a resident of Alabama and dies in Alabama; however, John owns property in Mississippi. Ancillary administration law provides a clear process for John’s executor of his Alabama estate to collect and distribute the Mississippi property since he has already been appointed in another jurisdiction’s court of law. John’s executor will file in Mississippi the admitted will and his letters testamentary or letters of administration to begin the ancillary administration in Mississippi.

• Abatement: Enact a new statute to provide a statutory order of abatement when devises and bequests of the decedent must be used in order to settle the decedent’s debts, and no order has been provided in the will. Sections 91-7-91, 91-7-191, 91-7-195, 91-7-199, 91-7-261, and 91-7-271 will be amended to conform to the new enactment.

Example 1: John dies with a will that leaves his hunting land worth $100,000 to Jim and $100,000 cash to Jane. The residue of his estate ($50,000) is left to Jim and Jane equally. A creditor has a claim for $150,000. Unless John’s will provides otherwise, under current law, Jim gets the $100,000 hunting land, and Jane receives nothing. There is no residue to divide between Jane and Jim. Under the proposed bill, the result is the same, because Jane’s general bequest abates prior to Jim’s specific devise.

Example 2: John dies with a will that leaves his home worth $100,000 to his daughter, Jane; his hunting land worth $50,000 to his son, Jim; $5,000 to each of his two nieces; and his remaining property worth $40,000 equally to Jane and Jim. A creditor has a claim for $50,000. Unless John’s will provides otherwise, under current law, Jane gets the $100,000 home, Jim gets the $50,000 hunting land, and the nieces receive nothing. There is no residue to divide between Jane and Jim. Under the proposed bill, the result is the same because residuary and general legacies abate before specific bequests and devises.

Example 3: John dies with a will that leaves his hunting land worth $100,000 to Jim and his stock in his business worth $100,000 to Jane. The residue of his estate ($100,000) is left to Jim and Jane equally. A creditor has a claim for $150,000. Unless John’s will provides otherwise, under current law, Jim gets the $100,000 hunting land, and Jane receives $50,000. There is no residue to divide between Jane and Jim. Under the proposed bill, both Jim’s and Jane’s specific legacy would abate equally without regard to the distinction between real estate and personal property, so they would both receive $75,000.00.

• Creditor Rights With Respect to Beneficial Interests in Trusts: Repeal the Family Trust Preservation Act (Sections 91-9-501 through 91-9-511) and enact Article 5 of the Uniform Trust Code so that the language and defined terms are the same as currently provided for in the Mississippi Trust Code. Some specific new issues are addressed as follows:

Example: John sets up a revocable trust. Under Article 5 of the Uniform Trust Code, John’s assets in the revocable trust would be subject to the claims of creditors.

Example: Jane sets up a life insurance trust on her life for her son with withdrawal rights. Jane’s payments to the trust are not subject to her son’s creditors unless the son decides to withdraw the money and compromise the life insurance policy. The fact that the son does not contribute to the trust does not mean it’s self-settled.

• Muniment of Title: Amend Section 91-5-35 to allow a will to be admitted to probate as a muniment of title by filing a signed and sworn petition signed by either the personal representative or the spouse and beneficiaries of real property and to increase the value of the probate estate to $100,000. This statute allows the transfer of real property without the necessity of probate when the decedent’s probate estate is $100,000 or less.

Example: Jane dies leaving a will devising real property located in Mississippi to her son, Jim. If Jane’s estate, not including real estate or exempt property, totals $100,000 or less, the transfer of property is the only reason the will would need to be probated, and all Jane’s debts have been satisfied, Jim may file a sworn petition in chancery court asking the court to recognize the will as valid solely to transfer the real property without
the necessity of probate.

• Vouchers, 3 Appraisers, and Inventory: Remove requirements regarding vouchers and an appointment of three appraisers when conducting an inventory. Provide that an inventory may not be required if waived in the will. Amend Sections 91-7-93, 91-7-95, 91-7-109, 91-7-117, 91-7-135, 91-7-141, 91-7-277, 91-7-291, and 91-7-297. Repeals 91- 7-111, 91-7-113, 91-7-115, 91-7-137, 91-7-139, 91-7-279.

• Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interest Act: Repeal Sections 89-21-1 through 89-21-17) the prior version of the Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interests Act adopted in Mississippi in 1994 and replace with the current version as last revised or amended in 2010. The more recent version of the Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interests Act addresses not only disclaimers of property but also disclaimers of powers over property and disclaimers of powers held in a fiduciary capacity. It also addresses different types of interests in property, including interests in jointly-held property. The provisions of the more recent version of the Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interests Act provide much more detail on the form of the disclaimer, delivery of the disclaimer and the effect of the disclaimer.

• Example: In John’s will, John designates his brother, Bob, as executor of his estate and trustee of a trust for his surviving spouse. The terms of the testamentary trust provide that John’s wife is entitled to all of the income of the trust during her lifetime. Bob is also given the power, in his discretion, to invade principal for the benefit of the surviving spouse and John’s descendants. The power to make distributions to the descendants
would prevent the trust from qualifying for the federal estate tax marital deduction. In the interest of all of the beneficiaries of the trust and to qualify the trust for the federal estate tax marital deduction, Bob can disclaim the power to make discretionary distributions to John’s descendants during the lifetime of John’s surviving spouse.

• Revocation by Divorce: Enact new statute to provide for automatic revocation of probate and nonprobate transfers upon divorce.

Example: John provided for his wife, Jane, in his will. John also named Jane as the beneficiary of his IRA and life insurance policies. John and Jane divorce, but John forgets to remove Jane from his IRA and life insurance policies. Under this law, all provisions for a former spouse in probate and nonprobate transfers, like a will, trust, IRA, insurance, payable on death account, etc. will be automatically revoked.

The Will Contest and Summary Judgment

November 21, 2018 § Leave a comment

Every will contestant has the right to a trial by jury if desired.

Milt Burris had filed a will contest raising issues of testamentary capacity and undue influence regarding the will of his father, Eddie Burris. The chancellor granted summary judgment in favor of Renee Sims Burris, and Milt appealed, arguing that it was error for the chancellor to adjudicate facts rather than letting a jury decide them.

In Burris v. Estate of Burris et al., the COA affirmed on September 25, 2018. Judge Irving wrote the court’s opinion:

¶7. The Mississippi Supreme Court in In re Launius, 507 So. 2d at 29-30, explained the burden of the contestant of a will facing a motion for summary judgment as follows:

Appellees, as proponents of the will, have the burden of proving the will throughout. They meet this burden by showing the will was duly executed and admitted to probate. When the will is admitted to probate, proponents put on prima facie evidence that the testator had testamentary capacity and further that no undue influence was placed upon him. The burden of going forward then shifts to contestant, who must overcome the presumption raised by proponents that testator had testamentary capacity, (and, therefore, that the testator’s execution of the will was a free and voluntary act). When the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure come into play within a situation involving a contest to [a] will, where movants for summary judgment (appellees) have shown there is no genuine issue of material fact vis-a-vis probate of the will, contestant, as the adverse party, may not rest upon the mere allegations of denials of his pleadings, but his response, by affidavits or as
otherwise provided in this Rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. M.R.C.P. 56(e).

(Citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

¶8. With this in mind, Milt argues that there existed genuine issues of material fact as to his father’s testamentary capacity and the presence of undue influence by Renee to defeat the summary judgment motion and continue the case to trial.

The court went on to analyze the trial court’s findings of fact on the issues of testamentary capacity and undue influence, finding no error, and returned to consideration of the chancellor’s role as finder of fact vs. that of a jury in a summary judgment proceeding:

¶16. The record supports Renee’s assessment of the proceedings in the chancery court. While Milt is correct in his assertion that it is improper for a chancellor in a will contest to adjudicate facts unless the parties have agreed to dispense with a jury, he fails to fully appreciate that there must be genuine issues of material facts to be determined by a jury and that after Renee moved for summary judgment, with supporting affidavits, showing no genuine issue of material fact on the issues of testamentary capacity and undue influence, he could not rest on his general allegations and suppositions regarding his father’s relationship with Renee and his father’s mental health. He, as the contestant of Eddie’s will, was required to bring forth an affidavit or affidavits demonstrating “sufficient evidence to establish the essential elements of [his] case on which [he] would bear the burden of proof at trial.” Karpinsky v. American Nat. Ins. Co., 109 So. 3d 84, 90 (¶17) (Miss. 2013). Our perusal of the record indicates that he did not come close to meeting his burden. [Emphasis added]

¶17. Milt offered no evidence to substantiate his claims at the trial level and does not do so here. The will was created three years prior to Eddie’s death, and there is no indication in the record that he lacked the testamentary capacity to create it or that he suffered undue influence from Renee. We hold that the chancellor’s findings on this issue are supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the judgment of the Chancery Court of Amite County is AFFIRMED.

A couple of observations:

  • Yet another case to hammer home the point that, when the other side files affidavits in a summary judgment proceeding, you must file counter-affidavits or risk an adverse ruling.
  • I wonder about that statement that the chancellor may not adjudicate facts, ” … unless the parties have agreed to dispense with a jury … .” That statement seems to contradict MCA 91-7-19, which states that, “At the request of either party [to a proceeding to admit a will to probate] an issue shall be made up and tried by a jury as to whether or not the writing propounded be the will of the alleged testator.” [My emphasis] The court’s language is that the chancellor may not adjudicate the case unless the parties waive trial by jury. The statute requires a request, meaning that the default setting is a bench trial.

Standing to Demand an Accounting

August 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

We visited the Ferrell v. Cole case yesterday, dealing with who is entitled to notice to close an estate. Ferrell held that only persons with a direct pecuniary interest in the estate were entitled to notice. If one is not in the class of persons entitled to notice, does one have standing to demand an accounting or to object to an accounting?

That was the question in Flowers v. Estate of Flowers, decided February 6, 2018, by the COA. At the trial level the Special Chancellor had denied the request of Claire and Jane, daughters of the decedent, for an accounting, finding that they had no current interest in their mother’s estate. Their interest was described by the COA this way:

¶4  …  The will also established a trust that named D.A. [a minor] and his descendants as the income beneficiaries. The will provided for the trust’s termination either at the time of D.A.’s thirtieth birthday or his death, whichever event occurred first. The will further stated that, at the time of termination, the trust’s assets were to be divided evenly between D.A. and Knox [the decedent’s son]. The will then granted Claire and Jane a shifting executory interest by providing that, if both D.A. and Knox passed away without any descendants before the trust’s termination, the trust’s assets were to be  distributed to Claire and Jane as beneficiaries, either directly or through conservatorships. While the will relieved the trustees from having to render a periodic accounting to any court, it stated that the trustees “shall . . . account fully and completely annually, throughout the term of this [t]rust, to such income and/or corpus beneficiaries as there may be or[,] in the event such beneficiary is a minor or a ward, then to such beneficiary’s guardian.”

So, in that situation, did Claire and Jane have standing to demand an accounting? Here’s how the COA dealt with the question:

¶16. On appeal, the parties disagree as to whether Claire and Jane have standing to request an accounting of their mother’s estate and testamentary trust. Since standing is a jurisdictional issue, we review it de novo. SASS Muni-V LLC v. DeSoto Cty., 170 So. 3d 441, 445 (¶12) (Miss. 2015). Standing is to be determined at the commencement of a lawsuit. In re Estate of Baumgardner, 82 So. 3d 592, 599 (¶21) (Miss. 2012). Regarding the applicable caselaw on standing, the Mississippi Supreme Court has stated the following:

To have standing to sue, a party must assert a colorable interest in the subject matter of the litigation or experience an adverse effect from the conduct of the defendant, or as otherwise authorized by law. An interest is deemed colorable if it appears to be true, valid, or right. An individual’s legal interest or entitlement to assert a claim against a defendant must be grounded in some legal right recognized by law, whether by statute or by common law. For a plaintiff to establish standing on grounds of experiencing an adverse effect from the conduct of the defendant/appellee, the adverse effect experienced must be different from the adverse effect experienced by the general public.

SASS Muni-V, 170 So. 3d at 446 (¶13) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

¶17. Mississippi precedent clearly establishes that vested remainder beneficiaries of a testamentary trust have standing to file suit and that holders of a shifting executory interest have some limited rights that can provide standing to file suit. See Baumgardner, 82 So. 3d at 600-01 (¶¶27-28); Hemphill, 245 Miss. at 46, 145 So. 2d at 461. [Fn 3] Claire and Jane claim they are vested remainder beneficiaries of their mother’s testamentary trust while Knox asserts his sisters have an unvested executory interest. As previously discussed, the chancellor found Claire and Jane were unvested contingent remainder beneficiaries.

[Fn 3] Cf. Cannon, 59 Miss. at 302-05 (holding that contingent remainder beneficiaries could prevent a life tenant from future waste to the detriment of the inheritance).

¶18. In applying precedent to the instant case, we find that Claire and Jane possess a shifting executory interest in their mother’s testamentary trust. A review of the will’s terms reflects that Brenda’s estate vests in D.A. and Knox, but that D.A. and Knox inherit subject to a condition of survivorship. See Hemphill, 245 Miss. at 46, 145 So. 2d at 461. D.A. and Knox may be divested if the condition of survivorship is not fulfilled. If the survivorship condition is not fulfilled, D.A. and Knox are then divested of their interests, which shift to Claire and Jane as beneficiaries. Precedent establishes that, as the owners of a shifting executory interest, Jane and Claire possess limited rights to prevent future waste. See id. See also Columbus & Greenville Ry. Co. v. City of Greenwood, 390 So. 2d 588, 592 (Miss. 1980) (applying the Hemphill holding to find that the heirs of original land grantors possessed a reversionary interest capable of evaluation). “An executory interest is a future interest, which is held by a third person, that either terminates another’s interest before its natural termination, or begins after the natural termination of a preceding estate.” K.F. Boackle, Real Property—Deeds and Conveyances, 7 Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 62:29 (2d. ed. Jeffrey Jackson et al. eds.). “A shifting executory interest occurs when ownership shifts from one transferee to another upon the occurrence of the subsequent event.” Scott v. Brunson,
569 S.E.2d 385, 387 (S.C. Ct. App. 2002). We now turn to a more specific review of the terms of Brenda’s will and the legal consequences of those terms.

¶19. In applying caselaw to the terms of Brenda’s will, we find the will’s terms reflect that, in creating the testamentary trust, Brenda named D.A. the income beneficiary with the principal to be placed in trust until the earliest of either D.A.’s thirtieth birthday or his death. At either D.A.’s thirtieth birthday or his death, Brenda’s will directed that the trust’s principal be evenly divided between D.A. and Knox “per stirpes to include adopted children.” The terms of the will next discussed disbursement of trust assets to beneficiaries who were under the age of twenty-one at the time of the trust’s termination, or who died before the trust’s termination. Finally, in establishing that D.A. and Knox inherit subject to a condition
subsequent of survivorship, the will stated as follows:

If there are no surviving beneficiaries, descendants of deceased former beneficiaries, former beneficiaries who are living, or descendants of deceased former beneficiaries, then his or her interest shall be distributed share and share alike to the [c]onservatorships for my two daughters[, Claire and Jane;] should either one or both of them not have a [c]onservatorship at the termination of this trust[,] then distribute their portion outright to them.

¶20. Thus, Brenda’s will established that, if D.A. and Knox failed to satisfy the condition of survivorship, they would be divested of their interests, which would then shift and be distributed to Claire and Jane. Accordingly, a review of Brenda’s will reflects that she gave Claire and Jane a shifting executory interest in the assets of the testamentary trust. [Fn 4] As stated, Mississippi precedent reflects that holders of a shifting executory interest enjoy limited rights to enjoin the possessory owner from waste of the inheritance. See Hemphill, 245 Miss. at 38, 145 So. 2d at 457. [Fn 5] We now turn to a review of applicable and instructive Mississippi precedent.

[Fn 4] See Hemphill, 145 So. 2d at 457 (finding that individuals who possessed a shifting executory interest in land taken and allegedly damaged by the Mississippi Highway Commission possessed limited compensable rights in the land); White v. Inman, 212 Miss. 237, 256, 54 So. 2d 375, 381-82 (1951) (finding the testator’s will devised to his daughter an estate in fee simple defeasible subject to an executory limitation). ).

[Fn 5] 5 Cf. Cannon, 59 Miss. at 302-05 (holding that contingent remainder beneficiaries could not recover damages from a life tenant for past waste but could enjoin the life tenant from future waste to the inheritance’s detriment

¶21. In Hemphill, the supreme court explained that an executory-interest owner’s limited right rests upon the constitutional provision for due process. Id. at 46, 145 So. 2d at 461. The Hemphill court found that Mississippi precedent and statutory law “place an independent
value and significance on future interests, whether ‘vested’ or not.” Id. at 47, 145 So. 2d at 462. The Hemphill court further explained that a contingent remainder interest “has achieved status as a protectable interest for many purposes” when the “contingent remainder is limited to an existing ascertained person[,]” like Claire and Jane in the instant case. Id. at 48, 145 So. 2d at 462. According to the Hemphill court, “[w]hen a contingent remainder is limited to an existing ascertained person[,] there is no question but that the courts will recognize the interest as having present existence.” Id.

¶22. Thus, upon review of relevant caselaw and the record before us, we find the chancellor erred in denying Claire and Jane’s request for an accounting of their mother’s estate and testamentary trust. As holders of a shifting executory interest in their mother’s estate, Claire and Jane possess limited rights to enjoin the possessory owners from future waste of the estate. See id. at 38, 145 So. 2d at 457.6 As a result, we reverse the chancellor’s judgment finding they lack standing to request an accounting, and we remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

In all fairness, the COA did not have the benefit of the Ferrell decision when it decided Flowers. So the COA had to rely on tax-sale, eminent-domain, and property cases for the most part in reasoning through to a decision. But after all this, in light of Ferrell, did Claire and Jane have such a “direct pecuniary interest” so as to entitle them to that level of of protection? And isn’t the “colorable interest” test of Sass-Muni-V (a tax-sale case) less restrictive than the “direct pecuniary interest” of Ferrell (an estate case)?

Or are the interests of Claire and Jane so remote that they can’t be said to have that “direct interest” under Ferrell, which is estate law?

Now that the courts have Ferrell as a waypoint, I hope they can give those of us at ground level some clear, practical guidance.

Who’s Interested?

August 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

MCA § 91-7-295 provides that, to close an estate, “Summons shall be issued or publication be made for all parties interested.” The interested parties have the opportunity to contest the final account.

Only thing is, the statute does not define who is an interested party. And, to compound matters, neither has case law. Until August 23, 2018.

On that date the MSSC handed down Ferrell v. Cole, which looked to the will contest statute to help define who would constitute interested parties under Section 295. The unanimous decision (Randolph not partcipating) by Justice King said this:

¶10. The statute regarding will contests provides that all interested parties must be made parties to a will contest. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-25 (Rev. 2013). This Court has noted that interested parties under the will contest statute are those whose direct pecuniary interests will be affected by the will. Garrett v. Bohannon, 621 So. 2d 935, 937 (Miss. 1993). Interested parties includes heirs-at-law, beneficiaries under earlier wills, and beneficiaries under the will being contested. Id. The Mississippi Court of Appeals has noted that interested parties in a will contest may also include creditors, as they may have a direct pecuniary interest in the estate. See In re Estate of Necaise, 126 So. 3d 49, 56 (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). A similar standard should be used to define interested parties regarding the final accounting under Section 91-7-295. To be an interested party under the statute, the party must have some legal tie to the estate in the fashion of a direct pecuniary interest. …

In this case, Tullos, an attorney, had gotten the chancery court to approve a contingent fee contract for wrongful death litigation on behalf of the estate. When he went to close the estate, the Ferrell Group, attorneys, objected claiming a dispute with Tullos over fees. Ferrell had never probated a claim against the estate, and there was no mention of Ferrell in the contract pre-approved by the court. The MSSC affirmed the chancellor’s conclusion that Ferrell was not an interested party within the meaning of the statute.

Closely related to the issue of notice is the issue of who is an interested party for the purpose of standing. It would seem that a person would have to be an interested party within the meaning of the statute in order to have standing to intervene or to sue to demand an accounting, and that interested party ” … must have some legal tie to the estate in the fashion of a direct pecuniary interest.”

So, what constitutes that kind of “direct pecuniary interest?” We’ll look at a case tomorrow that raises some questions in an attempt to answer that question.

Money is Personal

August 21, 2018 § 2 Comments

MCA 91-7-1 states that a will may me probated, and letters testamentary issued, in the county where:

  1. The testator or decedent had a fixed place of residence; or
  2. If she had no fixed place of residence and land is devised under the will, then in the county where the land, or some part of it, is located; or
  3. If the testator had no fixed place of residence and only personal property is disposed of in the will, then in the county where the testator dies, or where some part of the property may be.

A lawyer talked with me about a problem he ran into with 3, above. In his case, the decedent was a resident of another state, but had money on deposit in Mississippi. The lawyer attempted an ancillary probate to get the money for the beneficiaries, but the chancellor would not admit the will to probate in the county of the deposit because the judge was not satisfied that the funds met the definition of personal property within the meaning of the statute.

MCA § 1-3-41, defines personal property as follows:

The term “personal property,” when used in any statute, shall include goods, chattels, effects, evidences of rights of action, and all written instruments by which any pecuniary obligation, or any right, title, or interest in any real or personal estate, shall be created, acknowledged, transferred, incurred, defeated, discharged, or diminished.

All that, but no direct mention of cash, deposits, or funds.

The Mississippi Legislature cured the problem with SB 2508, effective July 1, 2018, which clarified the statute’s definition to embrace “all tangible and intangible personal property” and “cash, deposit accounts, and promissory notes.”

That should take care of that.

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.

 

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Estates and Administrations category at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.