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What Leads To A “Rebuttable Presumption” Of Undue Influence In Procuring A Will?

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A will is invalid if it can be proven that the document was procured by “undue influence.” The Florida Supreme Court has long held that there is a “rebuttable presumption” of undue influence when a “substantial beneficiary” of a proposed will had a “confidential relationship” with the testator and used that relationship to “actively procure” said will. In simple terms, if someone abused their trust to manipulate the testator into leaving them the bulk of their estate, a judge will assume there was undue influence unless the beneficiary can prove otherwise.

Florida Court Invalidates Will Due to Actions Taken by Primary Beneficiary

A recent decision from the Florida Third District Court of Appeal, Swiss v. Flanagan, demonstrates a situation where the beneficiary could not overcome this presumption. The parties in this case are the “longtime companion” and the adult daughter of a now-deceased Florida businessman (the testator).

After the testator died at the age of 77, the companion filed a will that the testator purportedly signed in June 2013. This will essentially gave the testator’s entire estate to the companion. The daughter objected to the will and filed what she claimed was a valid prior will from 2001 that provided for the testator’s three children.

The probate court eventually ruled in favor of the daughter, holding there was a presumption that the companion exercised undue influence over the testator–one that the companion could not credibly rebut. On appeal, the Third District upheld the lower court’s ruling. The key issue here was that the daughter presented credible evidence that the companion took an active role in procuring the very will that benefited her.

Specifically, the Third District said the evidence showed the companion participated in multiple meetings between the testator and his estate planning attorneys over the years. At one such meeting, the companion accompanied the testator to a meeting where he “inexplicably” said he wished to revise his will to completely disinherit his children and leave his entire estate to the companion. Indeed, this request was so unusual that the attorney took the unusual step of requesting two competency evaluations of the testator. Based on those evaluations, the attorney refused to draft the revised will.

After going through three additional attorneys, the testator purportedly signed the will that the companion later filed with the probate court. A week later, doctors diagnosed the testator with “dementia, anxiety, and depression,” according to the Third District’s opinion. Taken as a whole, the appellate court said the evidence clearly painted a picture of a testator who “was in declining health” and dependent on his companion to manage his finances and personal affairs. This led the trial court to properly treat the final will as “suspicious,” the Third District said, especially since the attorney who allegedly prepared the document lacked any “standard documentation” of the will’s execution.

 

Contact Florida Probate Litigation Lawyer Mark Manceri Today

Undue influence cases are often difficult and emotionally charged for all parties involved. That is why if you are involved in a will contest it is important to work with an experienced Pompano Beach undue influence lawyer who can guide you through the process. Contact the offices of attorney Mark R. Manceri if you need to speak with someone today.

Source:

3dca.flcourts.org/content/download/794965/opinion/201500_DC05_10132021_101703_i.pdf

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