Probate, trust, guardianship and inheritance litigation
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Florida Appellate Court Reviews Undue Influence Shifting Burdens Of Proof

By:  Jeffrey Skatoff, Esq.

In Hannibal v. Navarro, the Florida Third District Court of Appeals affirmed a probate court’s finding that a 2003 will was not the product of undue influence, and reviewed the burdens of proof in undue influence cases in Florida.  We’ve written about undue influence cases in Florida many times (see here, here, and here), but it is always good to review the undue influence burdens of proof when given the opportunity.

The Facts of Hannibal v. Navarro

Arlene Matthews-Walton died in 2017.  Arlene’s daughter, Portia Navarro, petitioned for formal administration of Arlene’s estate, seeking to probate Arlene’s 2003 Will.

Under the 2003 will, Arlene directed that her home in Key West be sold and the proceeds distributed to her five children in unequal shares: 4% to Marvalene Hannibal, and 24% to each of the other four children. The 2003 Will also devised another vacant lot in Key West to Navarro.  Arlene’s cash and personal property was to be divided between all of her children equally, excluding Marvalene.

Marvalene objected to the will, asserting that it was the product of undue influence.  She also claimed that Arlene lacked testamentary capacity, that the will lacked testamentary formalities, that the will was the result of fraud, and tortious interference with an expectancy.

All parties stipulated to the presumption of undue influence.  Trial went forward solely on the undue influence claim.  Several witnesses testified live and the trial court considered the deposition testimony of William Matthews (who had died during the course of the proceedings) as well as deposition testimony of the attorney who prepared the 2003 Will.

The testimony at trial revealed that:

  • In 1989, Arlene 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.
  • The business ultimately closed, and Marvalene left town, never repaying her mother, which placed a financial burden on Arlene and led to resentment.
  • Navarro had a very close relationship with her mother, and cared for her both personally and financially over the years.

Following the trial, the Florida probate 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, and admitted the 2003 Will to probate.  Marvalene appealed, contending that the trial court incorrectly applied the presumption of undue influence and misapprehended the evidence at trial.

The Presumption Of Undue Influence Under Florida Probate Law

Section 733.107(2), Florida Statutes, sets forth the presumption of undue influence:

In any transaction or event to which the presumption of undue influence applies, the presumption implements public policy against abuse of fiduciary or confidential relationships and is therefore a presumption shifting the burden of proof under ss. 90.30190.304.

In this case, the parties all stipulated that the presumption of undue influence had been raised.  Although the opinion does not discuss why the parties agreed that the presumption of undue influence had been raised, it is likely because Navarro was a substantial beneficiary, had a confidential relationship with Arlene, and was involved in some way in the procurement and the execution of the 2003 will.  The parties 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.

Florida Law Recognizes That a Will Procured By Undue Influence Is Void

Florida law recognizes that a will procured by undue influence is void.  Section 732.5165, Florida Statutes, states:

A will is void if the execution is procured by fraud, duress, mistake, or undue influence. Any part of the will is void if so procured, but the remainder of the will not so procured shall be valid if it is not invalid for other reasons. If the revocation of a will, or any part thereof, is procured by fraud, duress, mistake, or undue influence, such revocation is void.

The Court summarized the evolution of undue influence law in Florida, stating:

Generally, the person opposing a will has the burden to establish the grounds upon which the probate of the will is opposed, including undue influence. § 733.107, Fla. Stat. (2019). In 1971, the Florida Supreme Court held that a rebuttable presumption of undue influence arises when a substantial beneficiary under a will occupies a confidential relationship with the testator and is active in procuring the contested will. Carpenter v. Carpenter, 253 So. 2d 697, 701 (Fla. 1971). The Court held, however, that if the beneficiary comes forward with a reasonable explanation for her active role in the decedent’s affairs, the presumption of undue influence “will vanish from the case,” and the beneficiary does not have the burden to prove the absence of undue influence. Id. at 703-04. In 2002, the Florida Legislature amended section 733.107, adding a new subsection, which provides: (2) In any transaction or event to which the presumption of undue influence applies, the presumption implements public policy against abuse of fiduciary or confidential relationships and is therefore a presumption shifting the burden of proof under ss. 90.301-90.304. Accordingly, under the amended statute, applicable here, the alleged wrongdoer bears the burden of proving that there was no undue influence. Hack v. Janes, 878 So. 2d 440, 443 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004).

Do Not Ask the Florida Appellate Court To Reweigh The Facts

Here, the parties stipulated to the legal issues with regarding to undue influence and the burden of proof.  Therefore, all that remained was for the trial court to determine whether Navarro met her burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, to establish that Arlene’s 2003 Will was not procured by undue influence.

The Florida appellate court stated:

And this is precisely what the trial court did. 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 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).

Here, the Florida appellate court concluded that competent, substantial evidence supported the trial court’s determination that the 2003 Will was not procured by undue influence, and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.  It is not the function of the appellate court to reweigh the facts considered by the trial court in determining undue influence, and overturning an undue influence judgment after trial is a very difficult task.  Here, the will being challenged was almost 15 years old, and had a fairly natural pattern of distribution but for Navarro.  Although the facts were not heavily discussed in the opinion, this will did not have the hallmarks of a document ripe for an undue influence challenge under Florida law.

Jeffrey Skatoff is a Florida probate attorney.  To have Mr. Skatoff review your case free of charge, please go to his website.

Probate attorney Jeffrey Skatoff handles probate, trust, guardianship and inheritance litigation.

Jeffrey H. Skatoff, Esq.

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