Diaz v. Ashworth, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 1484550 (Fla. 3d DCA May 23, 2007)

A prospective client comes to see you about challenging a will on undue influence and/or lack of testamentary capacity grounds.  The client wants to know “how much will it cost, how long will it take, what are my chances of winning?”  You ask yourself what may be the most important question of all “should I take this case?” Unless you understand the evidentiary issues you’ll need to address in connection with each claim, you can’t possibly expect to answer any of the questions posed above with any degree of certainty.  And misjudging those questions usually equals an unhappy client who doesn’t want to pay his lawyer (yikes!)

Which is why the linked-to opinion is so important.  In this case the highly regarded Miami-Dade senior trial judge, Herbert Stettin, did such a good job of laying out the evidentiary issues underlying a will contest based upon undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity grounds, that the 3d DCA simply copied his order and adopted its reasoning as their own.

Evidence and Undue Influence Claims:

I found the discussion addressing evidentiary issues arising in an undue influence case especially helpful.  When reading the excerpt provided below, keep in mind the following three points.

  • Key statute: §733.107(2)
  • Burden of proof: preponderance of the evidence
  • Building your case: note the importance given to medical testimony

For further background, an excellent starting place is Florida’s New Statutory Presumption of Undue Influence, 77 Fla. B.J. 20, 21 (2003).

Judge Stettin:

Petitioner’s second claim is that Mr. and Mrs. Ashworth unduly influenced Mr. Mesa to make the July 10, 2003 will. Father Diaz argues that the evidence shows the Ashworths never had a prior close relationship with Mr. Mesa, that their deep involvement in the making of the will, together with their attempts to insulate Mr. Mesa from contact with others after the will was made, all done at a time when Mr. Mesa was in the final stages of the AIDS illness, prove that the Ashworths obtained the will in question by unduly influencing Mr. Mesa’s decision.

[Carpenter analysis]

The starting point to determine whether a will has been procured by the exercise of undue influence is the analysis required by In re: Estate of Carpenter, 253 So.2d 697 (Fla.1971). Under Carpenter, once it is established by the proponent that the will was properly executed, the contestant then must show, prima facie, the existence of a confidential relationship between the testator and the active procurement of the will by the proponent. Carpenter discusses those factual circumstances which may give rise to such a determination which, once made, results in a presumption that the will is the product of undue influence. Using the Carpenter test, I find that a presumption of undue influence was established by the evidence. Mr. Ashworth is the sole beneficiary under the July 10, 2003 will; he was present at its execution; Mrs. Ashworth was present on July 9, 2003, when Mrs. Mesa stated that he wished to make a will; Mr. Ashworth recommended that his attorney, Mr. Pilafian, draw the will; while disputed as to whether he learned of it on July 9 or July 10, 2003, Mr. Ashworth was aware of the contents of the will before it was signed; and Mrs. Ashworth was one of the subscribing witnesses. Add to this fact that Mr. Ashworth brought Mr. Mesa to Mr. Pilafian’s office to sign the will and that he and his wife were active in caring for him after the will was signed, and it is clear the Ashworths occupied a confidential relationship with Mr. Mesa.

[Shifting burden of proof under Carpenter]

Carpenter provides that once evidence of such a presumption of undue influence has been made, it does not shift the burden of proof to the proponent of the will to prove the will was not the product of undue influence. Rather, it merely shifts to the proponent “the burden of coming forward with a reasonable explanation for [the beneficiary’s] active role in the decedent’s affairs, and specifically, in the preparation of the will …”. 253 So.2d at 704. Carpenter holds that it then becomes the responsibility of the trial court to determine whether the proponent has, prima facie, satisfied this burden of reasonable explanation. Finally, once all these presumptions and burdens are met, the decision rests on the traditional evidentiary test of who has proven their case by a preponderance of the evidence.

[Impact of F.S. 733.107(2) on Carpenter analysis]

Subsequent to Carpenter, however, the legislature enacted an amendment to § 733.107, Fla. Stat ., to prohibit the shifting of the burden of proof in presumption of undue influences cases. See, e.g., Hack v. Janes, 878 So.2d 440, 443 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004). As it now stands, in those cases where the proponent of a will satisfies, prima facie, a presumption of undue influence in the making of the will, the proponent of the will has the burden of proving the will was not the product of undue influence. That burden must be met by a preponderance of the evidence as determined by the trier of fact.

[Application of law to facts]

Using these standards, I find that the Petitioner has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the will was not the product of undue influence by Mr. and Mrs. Ashworth. Mr. Mesa was capable of making his own decision about who would receive his property when he signed the Ashworth will. The will he signed on July 10, 2003, and the two previous wills he made in the two years prior to 2003, each named non-relatives as beneficiaries. Each will was very basic. On July 10, 2003, Mr. Mesa knew what a will was and he was clear about his wishes as to who should inherit his property. On the same day as the Ashworth will, Mr. Mesa also made another significant decision to reject further medical treatment and to enter hospice care at his home rather than spend his last days in an institution. Dr. Steinhart’s records and testimony are clear that Mr. Mesa was competent to make these decisions. I find the preponderance of the evidence in this case is that Mr. Mesa was competent and not unduly influenced in making the will dated July 10, 2003.

Evidence and Lack of Testamentary Capacity Claims:

I wrote about the last 3d DCA testamentary capacity case here.  Without mentioning that opinion (perhaps purposely?), Judge Stettin also did a great job of summarizing the state of the law in Florida with respect to what it takes to successfully prosecute a will challenge based on lack of testamentary capacity (again notice the importance given to medical testimony).  Here again the 3d DCA simply adopted his reasoning as its own.

Judge Stettin:

In Raimi v. Furlong, 702 So.2d 1273, 1286 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998), our Third District concisely set out the applicable standards for a determination of testamentary incompetence, stating:

It has long been emphasized that the right to dispose of one’s property by will is highly valuable and it is the policy of the law to hold a last will and testament good wherever possible. See In re Weihe’s Estate, 268 So.2d 446, 451 (Fla. 4th DCA 1972), quashed on existing facts, 275 So.2d 244 (Fla.1973); In re Dunson’s Estate, 141 So.2d at 604. To execute a valid will, the testator need only have testamentary capacity (i.e. be of “sound mind”) which has been described as having the ability to mentally understand in a general way (1) the nature and extent of the property to be disposed of, (2) the testator’s relation to those who would naturally claim a substantial benefit from his will, and (3) a general understanding of the practical effect of the will as executed. See In re Wilmott’s Estate, 66 So.2d 465, 467 (Fla.1953); In re Weihe’s Estate, 268 So.2d at 448; In re Dunson’s Estate, 141 So.2d at 604. A testator may still have testamentary capacity to execute a valid will even though he may frequently be intoxicated, use narcotics, have an enfeebled mind, failing memory, [or] vacillating judgment.” In re Weihe’s Estate, 268 So.2d at 448. Moreover, an insane individual or one who exhibits “queer conduct” may execute a valid will as long as it is done during a lucid interval. See Id.; see also Coppock v. Carlson, 547 So.2d 946, 947 (Fla. 3d DCA 1989) (whether testator had the required testamentary capacity is determined solely by his mental state at the time he executed the instrument), rev. denied, 558 So.2d 17 (Fla.1990).

[Application of law to facts]

Applying these standards, I find that Mr. Mesa was competent to make the July 10, 2003, Ashworth will. He understood the nature and extent of his property, he knew those who would naturally claim a substantial benefit from his will, and it is clear that he was aware of the practical effect of the will he signed. He knew that he was going to die. He made an informed decision to accept hospice care instead of further treatment just prior to making the Ashworth will. Dr. Steinhart believed Mr. Mesa was competent to make such an obviously important decision.