Probate, trust, guardianship and inheritance litigation
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Can A Deed Be Invalid Because of Undue Influence In Texas?

Most of the discussion regarding undue influence centers around the unlawful procurement of wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents.  A deed can also be held invalid as the result of undue influence in Texas.

In Estate of Friend, the San Antonio Texas Court of Appeals affirmed a jury’s finding that a will and three deeds were the product of undue influence.

The Facts of Estate of Friend

Joanne Cooksey Friend was married to Don Friend for over fifty years.  Joanne owned the Cooksey Ranch.  The family was at one time close, and Joanne and Don discussed with their daughters, Sarah and Suzanne, that the ranch would be divided equally between them.

The relationship between Sarah and Suzanne faded over time, and further deteriorated after Don died in October 2010.  Sarah’s relationship with her mother, Joanne, also deteriorated after Don’s death.  In December 2010, Joanne signed a gift deed conveying 478 acres of the ranch to Suzanne.

Over the next couple of years, Joanne accused Sarah of various bad behavior.  In 2011, Joanne executed a second gift deed conveying another 478 acres of the ranch to Suzanne.  In 2012, Joanne signed a will leaving everything to Suzanne, and two more gift deeds to Suzanne.

Joanne died in 2016.  Suzanne applied to probate the will.  Sarah challenged the will on the grounds of undue influence and lack of capacity.  Sarah challenged the gift deeds on the same grounds.

Can A Deed Be The Product of Undue Influence In Texas?

Yes.  The same elements are required to set aside a Texas deed on the grounds of undue influence as a will.  As the court stated:

To prevail on an undue influence claim, the contestant must prove: (1) the existence and exertion of an influence; (2) the effective operation of such influence so as to subvert or overpower the mind of the testator at the time of the execution of the testament; and (3) the execution of a testament which the maker thereof would not have executed but for such influence. In re Estate of Johnson, 340 S.W.3d 769, 776 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2011, pet. denied) (citing Rothermel v. Duncan, 369 S.W.2d 917, 922 (Tex. 1963)). The same elements are required to prevail on an undue influence claim to set aside a deed. Fillion v. Troy, 656 S.W.2d 912, 915 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1983, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

We have written about Texas undue influence cases here and here.

What Evidence Proves Undue Influence In Texas?

The Texas appeals court examined the evidence for each element of undue influence and upheld the jury’s findings to invalidate the deeds and the will.

Existence & Exertion Of An Influence

Regarding the existence and exertion of an influence, the Texas appeals court noted:

Sarah testified that, according to Joanne, Suzanne claimed Sarah was the one who broke into and stole from Joanne’s safe. Sarah testified this was a lie because she did not have the safe combination, but Suzanne did. Sarah also testified that, again according to Joanne, Suzanne told her Sarah was “running all over town, spreading stories about her being crazy and incompetent.” Sarah testified this, too, was false. A family friend, Cheryl McMullen, testified about a conversation she had with Suzanne and Joanne. McMullen testified Suzanne said during the conversation that “Sarah lied or stole or cheated” and was a “bad mother.” McMullen stated Suzanne’s comments influenced Joanne. Suzanne was also living on the ranch with Joanne, and Sarah testified Suzanne made efforts to isolate Joanne. This evidence would enable a reasonable factfinder to conclude an influence existed and that Suzanne exerted an influence on Joanne.

Undermining Or Overpowering The Mind Of The Decedent

The Texas appeals court looked at Joanne’s mental state as well as Suzanne’s isolation of Joanne to determine that the deeds and the will were the product of undue influence.  The evidence presented was that Joanne had a deteriorating mental state, stemming from the discovery of Don’s body on the ranch, and that she never fully recovered from the shock.

The medical records indicated that Joanne had suffered a stroke, was diagnosed with and died from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and heart failure.  She also exhibited paranoid and aggressive behavior.

The evidence of isolation of Joanne was as follows:

Sarah also testified that after Don died, Suzanne made all of Joanne’s decisions for her and isolated Joanne by interfering with Sarah’s ability to interact with her. Sarah explained Joanne used to return her phone calls and that she always had access to the ranch and a key to Joanne’s house, but Suzanne changed the locks to the house, installed a gate requiring a code Sarah did not have, and took control over Joanne’s voicemail and phone messages, and Joanne no longer returned Sarah’s calls. Sarah further testified Suzanne forced Joanne to leave her house and live in the guesthouse, while Suzanne and Joel lived in Joanne’s house. The evidence also shows Joanne conveyed virtually all of her real property to Suzanne, and Suzanne, using power of attorney, gave Joanne’s car to her husband Joel. Sarah additionally testified Joanne gave a typewritten letter to her lawyer about changing her will, listing numerous reasons for disinheriting Sarah. Sarah testified Suzanne must have written the letter because Joanne never used a typewriter or computer. Additionally, Chance testified that, before Don died, Don had warned him about Suzanne trying take more than half of the estate after he and Joanne died.

All this evidence combined could enable a reasonable fact finder to conclude that Suzanne’s influence over Joanne at least undermined, if not overpowered, Joanne’s mind at the time of the execution of the gift deeds and of the will.

No Execution “But For” the Influence

Finally, the evidence was clear that before Don’s death, Don and Joanne planned to divide the ranch equally between Sarah and Suzanne. Sarah testified that Suzanne convinced Joanne to change her mind regarding the equal division by telling Joanne lies about Sarah.  The evidence would enable a reasonable fact finder to conclude that but for Suzanne’s influence, Joanne would not have executed her will disinheriting Sarah and the gift deeds transferring virtually all of the ranch to Suzanne.

The Estate of Friend is a classic example of a Texas undue influence case.  One child being disinherited in favor of the other is a factual scenario that often does not sit well with the trier of fact, particularly if the evidence presented supports the undue influence challenge.  This is true whether the instrument sought to be invalidated on the grounds of undue influence is a Texas will, trust, or a deed.

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