Claims Of Undue Influence In Florida Probate
In most cases, when a deceased person’s will is submitted to probate, the process is fairly uneventful, and the assets and debts of the deceased are disposed of appropriately. However, in some cases one or more heirs may bring a claim of undue influence against another person, and if this happens, it can throw a significant wrench into the process. If someone has made this claim in the case of your deceased loved one, it is crucial for you to understand the possible ramifications.
A Type Of Fraud
Undue influence is the most common challenge made against probated documents (wills or trusts) in Florida. These types of claims allege that a person has engaged in “over-persuasion, duress, force, … [or] fraudulent contrivances” to the point where the author of the will or trust has had their free will or agency “destroyed.” Essentially, if someone makes a claim of undue influence during probate proceedings, they are alleging that a person or a group of people has exerted so much pressure on the deceased person that the deceased person’s will (or other estate planning document) can no longer truly be said to express their wishes. It is most often claimed in cases involving wills and trusts, but it can also be brought up in the context of inter vivos transfers and pay-on-death accounts.
In a case alleging undue influence, the challenging party must make a convincing case for it actually occurring, However, once that case has been made, the burden of proof shifts, and the alleged wrongdoer has a chance to show that no undue influence actually happened. Undue influence can only be established when all the criteria have been met, and can be shown to be accurate by a preponderance of the evidence. A ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard is the same one required in standard civil cases in Florida – generally, it means that the evidence must be more likely to support your assertion than to disprove it.
The Carpenter Criteria
Technically, undue influence is a type of fraud, and like with so many other types of fraudulent behavior, cases involving this allegation will usually hinge on circumstantial evidence. After all, one cannot assume that someone looking to exert undue influence would try to do it openly, in the presence of witnesses. Florida law specifies three factors that, if they all exist in one person, will usually create a presumption of undue influence. They are: (1) ‘Substantially benefiting’ in the will or trust; (2) Having a close, even confidential, relationship with the decedent; and (3) actively taking a role in creating or procuring the will.
The first two criteria can be relatively easy to establish, but the third is often more difficult. In order to be able to show that someone “actively” took a role in “procuring” the will, the court in In re: Estate of Carpenter (1971) laid out seven factors to help determine whether active procurement actually took place, and it is these factors that often will decide whether a person has exerted undue influence or not. Some of them include the person being the prime mover in the decedent making their will, being the one to find witnesses to the will, and recommending a specific attorney to draft the will itself.
Contact A Naples Probate Attorney
While probate can be a relatively simple process, accusations of undue influence are relatively common and must be dealt with before proceeding. If you have questions or concerns regarding your own estate, calling a Naples probate attorney from Nici Law Firm may be the first step toward ensuring all is how you want it to be going forward. Contact our offices today via our website, or on the telephone at 239-449-6150, to schedule a consultation.