The WSJ’s Wealth Report Blog posted here on litigation swirling around the trust/estate of billionaire mall magnate Mel Simon. What I found especially interesting was the implication of possible undue influence by his surviving spouse, Bren Simon. Here’s an excerpt:

Months before he died of cancer last September, billionaire mall magnate Mel Simon made some big changes to his will.

The changes boosted the share of his fortune left to his wife, Bren Simon. Originally she was to get a third. After the changes, she was to half.

The changes also cut out Melvin’s three children from his first marriage—Deborah, David Simon and Cynthia Simon-Skjodt—and left charitable giving to Bren’s discretion. The earlier will earmarked one-third of the estate for charity.

Mr. Simon’s estate is valued at somewhere from $1 billion to $2 billion, and it has increased since his death since the stock in the company he founded–Simon Property Group–has rebounded.

The changes to the will sparked an escalating Simon-family feud, as this Chicago Tribune article lays out.. Mr. Simon’s daughter Deborah is suing her stepmom, Bren Simon, alleging she persuaded Mel Simon to change his will to reduce the children’s inheritances. The suit claims her dad was suffering from dementia at the time and needed help signing the document.

Now, Bren Simon’s latest court filing [click here] says Mr. Simon “voluntarily and of his own free will signed a valid will and trust in February.” She acknowledges that Mr. Simon needed help with his signature, but said Parkinson’s symptoms in his right hand were to blame.

Spousal Undue Influence Claims in Florida:

I have no idea what the law is on spousal undue-influence claims in Indiana (where Mr. Simon’s estate is being litigated), but in Florida they’re very tough to prove. For starters, you can’t rely on the “confidential relationship” between spouses to trigger the presumption of undue influence. There’s a solid, common sense reason for this rule: in its absence every will benefiting a spouse could potentially be challenged on undue influence grounds. Here’s how the 3d DCA explained Florida’s approach in Tarsagian v. Watt, 402 So.2d 471 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981):

The holding of Goertner v. Gardiner, 125 Fla. 477, 170 So. 112, reh. den., 126 Fla. 412, 170 So. 844 (1936), that the confidential relationship which exists between a husband and wife is not one which may be considered in the law governing will contests, accord, In re Estate of Knight, 108 So.2d 629 (Fla. 1st DCA 1959), is, in our view, still extant. Since a confidential relationship is one necessary requirement which must be met before a presumption of undue influence arises, under Goertner the presumption cannot arise in the case of a husband and wife. Were the confidential relationship between spouses not exempted from that presumption of undue influence rule, the presumption would arise in nearly every case in which the spouse is a substantial beneficiary, since the required active procurement would almost always be present. One would naturally expect to find a spouse to be present at the execution of the will, present when the testator expresses a desire to make a will, knowledgeable about the contents of the will prior to its execution, involved in its safekeeping, and perhaps even involved in the recommendation of an attorney-preparer and consultation with an attorney-preparer. These, of course, are among the criteria for determining if one is engaged in active procurement. See In re Estate of Carpenter, supra.

On the other hand,  I don’t think this means a spousal undue influence claim is impossible in Florida; you just can rely on the presumption. Instead, you’ll need to prove your case directly. A case that suggests a finding of undue influence against a surviving spouse, although not based on a presumption, is In re Auerbacher’s Estate, 41 So.2d 659 (Fla. 1949). 

But what if the marriage itself is procured by fraud, undue influence, or duress?

By the way, if someone is intent on preying upon another’s wealth, the best way to go about doing it isn’t mucking around with estate planning documents, it’s marrying the guy. The mother of all inter-spousal estate grabs is the marriage itself. Once you’re hitched, you’re automatically entitled to all sorts of goodies as a surviving spouse, no matter what the estate planning documents may say.

This is where we hit a brick wall in Florida: the current state of the law seems to be that marriages procured by fraud, undue influence or duress can’t be challenged after a person’s death. Click here for an excellent white paper prepared by über probate litigator William (“Bill”) T. Hennessey and his team over at Gunster summarizing Florida law on this issue and a proposed legislative fix. Here’s an excerpt:

The mere status of surviving spouse affords a myriad of significant financial benefits under Florida law, including the right to homestead property (at least a life estate in the decedent’s homestead residence), an’ elective share (30% of the decedent’s augmented elective estate), to take as a pretermitted spouse (up to 100% of the estate under the laws of intestacy), family allowance, exempt property, and priority in preference in selecting a personal representative. In addition, Florida courts have held that a presumption of undue influence in a will contest “cannot arise in the case of a husband and wife” because the requirement of active procurement would almost always be present. Jacobs v. Vaillancourt, 634 So. 2d 667, 672 (Fla. 2d DCA 1994); Tarsagian v. Wall, 402 So. 2d 471, 472 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981).

Most of these benefits are well deserved. It has often been said that Florida has a strong public policy in favor of protecting a decedent’s surviving spouse. See, e.g., Via v. Putnam, 656 So. 2d 460, 462 (Fla. 1995). However, what happens when a marriage is procured by undue influence, fraud or exploitation? Is Florida’s public policy furthered, in such an instance? This report will discuss the current state of Florida law on the ability to challenge the validity of a marriage after the death of one of the parties to the marriage. It will also examine how other states have addressed this issue.
. . . . .

In sum, Florida follows the common law and majority rule which only allows void marriages to be challenged after death. In most instances, Florida courts have held that marriages procured by fraud, duress, and undue influence are merely voidable, affording potential heirs no ability to challenge a marriage after death. Given the extensive rights available to a surviving spouse, a wrongdoer can profit significantly by simply inducing or influencing an elderly person to enter into a marriage. The Subcommittee recommends that the full committee consider and discuss legislation to address this issue.