F.S. 732.5165 tells us that a will (or any party of it) procured by undue influence is void. And F.S. 733.107(1) tells us the person challenging a will on undue influence grounds (or any other basis) bears the initial burden of proof.
But what if direct evidence of the undue influence is impossible to find? That, in fact, is the norm. So is undue influence the perfect crime? Nope. Florida law permits contestants to satisfy their initial burden of proof in these cases with circumstantial evidence sufficient to raise a rebuttable “presumption” of undue influence. Once the presumption’s triggered, F.S. 733.107(2) tells us the burden of proof shifts from the person alleging undue influence to the person defending against the undue-influence charge.
What needs to happen to trigger the undue-influence presumption and how it is — or is not — rebutted at trial, is the central question in almost all inheritance litigation, and the topic of at least two excellent Florida Bar Journal articles (see here, here), as well as national commentary.
Confused? Don’t be. As demonstrated in the 3d DCA’s opinion in the Hannibal case below, all this burden shifting analysis can play out pretty simply in real life.
This case revolved around a 2003 Will that favored one adult child over all other family members. The will was challenged on undue influence grounds. The undue-influence presumption wasn’t contested, as explained by the 3d DCA.
Eventually, the parties all stipulated to a presumption of undue influence, pursuant to section 733.107(2), Florida Statutes (2019), and agreed that the burden to prove that the 2003 Will was not the product of undue influence was on Navarro, under a standard of preponderance of the evidence.
Good news for the challenger? Of course! Does this mean the case is over? Far from it. And that’s the most important take away from this case. At trial the child favored by the decedent put on evidence rebutting the undue-influence presumption … and won.
As practitioners we have so few published examples of how real world judges weigh the evidence in these cases. Which means any time the facts of one of these cases makes it into a published opinion, it’s well worth holding onto. This one included.
Want a real-life example of how to rebut a presumption of undue influence? Read on:
The testimony at trial revealed that in 1989, Ms. Matthews had taken a mortgage on her home with high interest so that she could loan Marvalene money to open a bar/restaurant in Key West. However, the business ultimately closed, and Marvalene left town, never repaying her mother, a fact which witnesses testified placed a financial burden on Ms. Matthews and led to resentment. Conversely, the testimony at trial also established that Navarro had a very close relationship with her mother, and cared for her both personally and financially over the years.
Following the trial, the trial court concluded that Navarro had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the 2003 Will was not the product of undue influence, and accordingly entered final judgment in Navarro’s favor, admitted the 2003 Will to probate, and appointed Thurston as the personal representative.
And were these facts sufficient to withstand an appellate challenge? Yup. So saith the 3d DCA:
The arguments advanced here by appellants are little more than a request for this court to reweigh the evidence presented to the trial court below, and this we cannot do. See Madrigal, 22 So. 3d at 829 (noting: “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”) (internal quotation omitted). Upon our review of the record below, we conclude there is competent substantial evidence to support the trial court’s determination that the 2003 Will was not procured by undue influence, and therefore affirm. See Diaz v. Ashworth, 963 So. 2d 731 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).