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.


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.

SOL No Bar in an Egregious Undue Influence and Fraud Case

March 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

We talked here recently about the statute of limitations (SOL) applicable in an action to recover land procured by fraud. A 2002 MSSC case sheds further light on when that statute begins to run, and some other related aspects.

In 1979, 24-year-old Michael Cupit appeared uninvited at the home of Mary Lea Reid, a 78-year-old widow living in Liberty, MS. Cupit, who lived some 40-miles distant in Brookhaven, attributed the visit to his interest in antebellum homes and that some of his relatives had sharecropped on Reid’s land decades earlier. From that visit, Cupit contiinued to visit Reid, and he developed a strong relationship with her, despite his departure to commence law school that fall.

The relationship became intimate, according to witnesses and letters exchanged between the two, although Cupit contended that it was a mother-son relationship.

Cupit testified that he had had conversations with fellow law students about how to obtain Reid’s property.

In 1982, Cupit took Reid to a Brookhaven law firm with the intention of being adopted by Reid so as to cut off claims of any of her heirs. After the lawyer met with Reid, he suggested that an adoption was not necessary. Cupit then asked the lawyer to prepare a deed by which Reid conveyed her real property to Cupit reserving a life estate, which was done, and the deed was recorded.

The next day, Cupit assisted Reid in preparing a holographic will devising all of her property to him. As of the date when this was done, apparently, Cupit had been admitted to the bar. The chancellor found that Cupit, not Reid, was the client of the Brookhaven attorney, and that Reid was Cupit’s client.

In 1983, Reid again visited the Brookhaven law firm accompanied by Cupit, this time meeting with a different attorney. The attorney met separately with Reid and took steps to satisfy himself of her independent will and competence. The product of this meeting was a will essentially identical in substance to the holographic will.

In 1986, Reid adopted Cupit.

In 1995, Cupit had Reid’s power of attorney transferred to himself.

Through the years, Cupit alienated Reid from her family and friends, and restricted their access to her.

Reid died in 1997, and Thomas Pluskat filed for administration of the estate. He was appointed administrator, and initiated an action to set aside the will, the deed, adoption, and power of attorney.

At trial, the chancellor found that Cupit had exercised undue influence over Reid, and that the will, deed, adoption and power of attorney should all be set aside. His opinion stated:

The Court finds that the evidence regarding Michael Cupit’s efforts to exclude most, if not all of the family members and some long-time friends of Mary Reid from her, together with Mary Reid’s strong desire to have a child which she had never had, coupled with the engaging and unique personality  and tendencies of Michael Cupit, as observed by the court in the evidence as well as personal observations of Mr. Cupit throughout the course of the trial, combined so as to put Mr. Cupit in a position with Mary Reid that Mr. Cupit could and did over-reach and influence Mary Reid to his advantage and her ultimate disadvantage. Mr. Cupit’s influence, subtle and undetected by some of Mary Reid’s friends, was used in order to gain advantage of Mary Reid and to obtain her property consisting of approximately 205 acres of land, an antebellum home that had been in her family for about 140 or so years and substantial and unique family heirlooms located within the home as well as significant amounts of money from the time of Mr. Cupit’s law school days through the time of Mary Reid’s death. During a portion of this time, subsequent to Mr. Cupit’s beginning of the practice of law, he occupied a dual fiduciary role in that he was her attorney and counselor at law.

* * *

The Court finds as a matter of fact and law that the deed, will, adoption, and subsequent power of attorney granted by Mary Reid and /or pursued by Mary Reid and Michael Cupit were the direct result of Mr. Cupit’s efforts to obtain the property of Mary Reid to his own advantage and to her ultimate harm and disadvantage. Therefore, the Court finds that the deed and will were procured as a result of undue influence, overreaching, breach of a fiduciary relationship, breach of an attorney-client relationship, breach of a position of trust that Michael Cupit had gained with and over Mary Reid notwithstanding the fact that she was “strong-willed.”

Michael appealed.

His first issue on appeal was whether the administrator’s action to set aside the deed was barred  by the SOL. In its decision in the case of Estate of Mary L. Reid: Cupit v. Pluskat, handed down May 30, 2002, The MSSC addressed it this way:

¶17. This Court has held that statutes of limitation in actions to recover land begin to run as soon as a cause of action exists. Aultman v. Kelly, 236 Miss. 1, 5, 109 So.2d 344, 346 (1959). However, § 15-1-7 has been construed to require possession by the defendants claiming its protection. Greenlee v. Mitchell, 607 So.2d 97,110 (Miss. 1992); Bowen v. Bianchi, 359 So.2d 758, 760 (Miss.1978); Trigg v. Trigg, 233 Miss. 84, 99, 101 So.2d 507, 514 (1958).

¶18. In Greenlee this Court held that the ten-year statute of limitations on action to recover land did not commence to run as soon as a cause of action existed, upon execution of deed pursuant to undue influence, but only when plaintiffs, the grantor’s heirs, had notice of the existence of an attempted deed, where the defendants had not taken possession in the interim. 607 So.2d at 110.

¶19. Here Cupit did not gain possession with the recording of the 1982 deed. Reid retained a life estate and remained in possession until her death. The only person who could have contested the deed during this period was Reid herself, who was in possession. Therefore, the statute of limitations did not begin to run against Thomas Pluskat until 1997 when Reid died.

¶20. As this suit was commenced well within ten years after Reid died and the defendant was not in possession during her lifetime, Cupit’s claim that the statute had run is without merit.

Cupit also argued that Pluskat had no standing to challenge the adoption, but the MSSC rejected that argument on the basis that it was a fraud on the court, and was part of a long-term scheme by Cupit to take advantage of Reid by fraud and overreaching. The court did conclude, however, that its findings as to the adoption “are specific to the facts of this case.”

Both the will and the deed were found by the chancellor to have been products of undue influence. The MSSC affirmed, saying:

¶25. Cupit argues that the chancellor erred in finding that Reid’s will is void because Reid was competent to make a will and there was no confidential relationship between the two of them.

¶26. As previously discussed, the chancellor found that a confidential relationship and an attorney/client or fiduciary relationship existed between Reid and Cupit. This finding is based on substantial evidence.

¶27. Once a confidential relationship is found, the beneficiary must disprove the presumption of undue influence by clear and convincing evidence. In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So.2d at 921; In re Estate of Smith, 543 So.2d 1155, 1161 (Miss. 1989).

¶28. To overcome the presumption of undue influence, the proponents must show (a) good faith on the part of the beneficiary, (b) the grantor’s full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and (c) the grantor’s independent consent and action. Mullins [v. Ratcliff], 515 So.2d [1183,] at 1193.

¶29. For many of the same reasons he found that the deed was a product of undue influence, the chancellor also found that Reid’s will was a product of undue influence. The attested will was an almost exact copy of the holographic will which Cupit helped Reid prepare. As discussed previously, the chancellor found that Cupit did not act in good faith in any part of his dealings with Reid. The chancellor also found that Reid did not receive independent counsel in the making of her will. We find that the attorney who prepared the will acted as a mere scrivener and that Reid did not receive independent counsel concerning her will. In re Estate of Moses, 227 So. 2d 829, 833 (Miss. 1969). We affirm the chancellor’s decision to set aside the will.

I commend the decision to your reading both as an object lesson in unethical, dishonest and rapacious conduct by an attorney, and as an exposition on the particular points of law in this case.

An interesting sidelight: two of the attorneys in the case have judicial experience. Current District 14 Circuit Court Judge Mike Taylor was one of the attorneys representing Pluskat. Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice James Robertson was one of the attorneys representing Cupit.

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