Estate of Madrigal v. Madrigal, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 4061747 (Fla. 3d DCA Nov 25, 2009)

I recently wrote here about the “Undue Influence Worksheet,” a tool for probate litigators and their clients to organize their thinking and zero in on the key evidence determining the outcome of their undue influence case. Why is this so important? Because when it comes to pure fact questions, such as whether your client did or did not unduly influence the testator, expect you’ll only get one shot at winning your case: at trial. As the linked-to case makes clear, it doesn’t matter if a panel of appellate judges would have called your case a different way, as long as your trial judge’s factual determinations are supported by competent substantial evidence, that’s it, game over: the trial judge’s order stands.

In the instant case, following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court entered an order making specific findings of facts and concluding that the sole beneficiary procured the testator’s last will and testament by undue influence. As the trial court’s findings of fact are supported by competent, substantial evidence, and the findings of fact support the trial court’s conclusion of undue influence, we affirm the order under review. See Estate of Brock, 692 So.2d 907, 913 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996) (“[O]ur scope of review requires us to accept the factual findings of the trial court so long as there is support for them by competent substantial evidence. It is axiomatic that the trial court’s resolution of conflicting evidence will not be disturbed by a reviewing court in the absence of a clear showing of error, or that the conclusions reached are erroneous.”).

What’s going on here is pretty basic to how our court system is supposed to work: trial judges decide fact issues, appellate judges decide legal issues. If your case turns on a pure fact issue, don’t expect a “do over” on appeal. This division of labor was at the heart of the Florida Supreme Court’s thinking when it articulated the competent-substantial-evidence standard in Shaw v. Shaw, 334 So.2d 13, 16 (Fla. 1976):

It is clear that the function of the trial court is to evaluate and weigh the testimony and evidence based upon its observation of the bearing, demeanor and credibility of the witnesses appearing in the cause. It is not the function of the appellate court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court through re-evaluation of the testimony and evidence from the record on appeal before it. The test … is whether the judgment of the trial court is supported by competent evidence. Subject to the appellate court’s right to reject “inherently incredible and improbable testimony or evidence,” it is not the prerogative of an appellate court, upon a de novo consideration of the record, to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court.

OK, you ask, so what’s competent substantial evidence?

Here’s how the phrase was broken down and defined by the 5th DCA in the context of a probate case in Lonergan v. Estate of Budahazi, 669 So.2d 1062, 1064 (Fla. 5th DCA 1996):

The term “competent substantial evidence” does not relate to the quality, character, convincing power, probative value or weight of the evidence but refers to the existence of some evidence (quantity) as to each essential element and as to the legality and admissibility of that evidence. Competency of evidence refers to its admissibility under legal rules of evidence. “Substantial” requires that there be some (more than a mere iota or scintilla), real, material, pertinent, and relevant evidence (as distinguished from ethereal, metaphysical, speculative or merely theoretical evidence or hypothetical possibilities) having definite probative value (that is, “tending to prove”) as to each essential element of the offense charged.