When Mrs. Coketine Bray Carpente died in 1966 at the age of 52, she left her four surviving children with a messy family inheritance feud. Four days before she passed away, Mrs. Carpenter bequeathed her entire estate to her daughter, Mary Redman Carpenter—leaving nothing to her three sons. Two of her sons filed a lawsuit against Mary, maintaining that their sister had unduly influenced their mother and manipulated Mrs. Carpenter into preparing a will that would be most beneficial to her. If proven, this type of elderly financial abuse would make the document invalid.
Upon investigation, the Florida Supreme Court found evidence that Mrs. Carpenter had previously expressed intent to leave her estate equally to her four children. In the days leading up to her mother’s death, Mary had been active in procuring execution of the will, and had made all the arrangements for its completion. During this time, Mrs. Carpenter had been experiencing depression and was taking heavy medication.
Because Mary had played such an active role in procuring the will while her mother was mentally vulnerable, the court decided that the will was procured through undue influence, and it was declared invalid.
The Florida Supreme Court’s Decision
The court ruled that the presumption of undue influence may arise when a substantial beneficiary of the will in a confidential relationship with the decedent is “active in procuring the contested will.”
The court went on name the following seven indicators of active procurement to consider in such cases:
- Was the beneficiary present when the will was executed?
- Was the beneficiary present when the testator expressed desire to make a will?
- Did the beneficiary recommend an attorney to draw the will?
- Did the beneficiary know the contents of the will?
- Did the beneficiary give instructions to the attorney who drew the will?
- Did the beneficiary secure witnesses to the will?
- Did the beneficiary safe-keep the will following its execution?
After the Carpenter decision, courts passed an amendment to state law transferring the burden of proof to the proponent of the will. This means that once an undue influence case is established, it becomes the accused’s responsibility to produce evidence that the will was not procured with undue influence.
Florida’s Undue Influence Law Today
Today, undue influence is defined as the use of inappropriate persuasion tactics, manipulation, or force to hurt or impair the willpower of someone writing a will. Under undue influence, the person who is writing the will—the testator—operates under the control of another rather than voluntarily. Consequently, the resulting document does not reflect the will of the testator, but the person who is influencing them. Under Florida law, such a will would be void.
The process of pursuing an undue influence claim is fairly complex. Since the testator is no longer alive to testify to their intentions, the case must rely primarily on outside witnesses and circumstantial evidence. While it can be difficult to prove undue influence has occurred, it can be equally difficult to disprove it. Therefore, the outcome of the case can depend largely on whom the burden of proof lays.
Don’t navigate the complicated process of pursuing an undue influence claim on your own. If you suspect that a loved one’s will is invalid and you were unfairly deprived of inheritance, a skilled probate lawyer with experience handling undue influence cases can help. With the guidance of a knowledgeable attorney, you can have fraudulent wills invalidated, and recover the inheritance that is rightfully yours.
Alternatively, you can help to protect the legitimacy of a will and avoid undue influence accusations by working with an experienced professional who understands the nuances of the law and can advise you one the best way to proceed.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011, 2012 and 2014 in Estate and Trust Litigation.