Avoiding the Claim of Undue Influence in Florida Probate Proceedings

A common argument raised by those challenging the validity of a will is that a beneficiary of the will exercised undue influence over the testator. If this is proven in probate proceedings, anything that is received by that beneficiary as a result of his or her undue influence will be considered void and returned back into the testator’s estate. Asserting a claim of undue influence can have many affects, including the delay of a will’s execution, the disruption of a will’s intentions, and increased costs related to the probate proceedings.

In 2002, the law in Florida changed to provide that once the requirements needed to create a presumption of undue influence are met, the proponent of the will has the burden of proving that the will was not the result of undue influence. See Fla. Stat. ยงยง 733.107(2), 90.301-90.304. In order to meet this presumption, the person challenging the will must show that the alleged undue influencer (1) was a substantial beneficiary (2) who occupied a confidential relationship with the testator and (3) was active in procuring the will and trust. See In re Carpenter’s Estate, 253 So. 2d 697 (Fla. 1971). As a result of the presumption of undue influence and the associated burden shifting, this is a very attractive argument for a person challenging a will, as it lessens the burdens normally imposed upon the challenger of a will.

Testators often choose to bequeath a substantial amount to a single beneficiary with whom they have a close relationship. However, as soon as a testator does so, it opens the door for other beneficiaries or family members to claim that the favored beneficiary has exercised undue influence over the testator. So the question becomes: how does one avoid this fight and still divide one’s estate in accordance with his or her desires?

A recent case decided by Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, which reversed a circuit court’s finding of undue influence, might give the best answer. See Estate of Kester v. Rocco, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1387 (Fla. 1st DCA, June 24, 2013). In reversing the lower court, the First Circuit made the following findings: (A) the beneficiary’s close relationship with her parent and her extensive assistance to her parent was not enough to show undue influence; (B) the substantial beneficiary was not present on any occasion when the testator made changes affecting the estate; (C) there was no evidence that the substantial beneficiary actively participated in any of the changes to affecting the estate; and (D) there was evidence that the testator was of clear mind when making the changes. Because of these factors, there was not enough evidence to show that the beneficiary procured the benefits that she received improperly through undue influence, and, as a result, there was not enough evidence to support a finding of undue influence.

When one wants to leave a substantial benefit to one of their heirs with whom they are close, it can cause headaches down the line if another heir alleges undue influence. In order to assist the prompt execution of one’s will without unnecessarily costly probate proceedings that could frustrate the will’s intentions, Kester tells us that it is important to separate one’s intended beneficiaries from the process. This will help insure that the beneficiary can overcome any potential claims of undue influence. Often, however, this is difficult to do without the help of a trusted representative. If you or someone you know is in need of representation or assistance with avoiding or asserting a claim of undue influence, or with any other estate planning or administration question, please do not hesitate to contact the legal team at Chepenik Trushin, LLP.