Challenges to a Will or Trust Part I – Undue Influence And The Burden Shifting Presumption
In many disputes involving a change to a will or trust made by an elderly individual, it is alleged that the change to the testamentary document was the result of undue influence. Florida law defines undue influence as “over persuasion, duress, force, coercion, or artful or fraudulent contrivances to such an extent that there is a destruction of free agency and willpower.” In In re: Carpenter’s Estate, 253 So. 2d 697 (Fla. 1971) the Florida Supreme Court created a burden shifting presumption for claims of undue influence. Under Carpenter if the party alleging undue influence showed the existence of a confidential relationship between the doner and the donee, active procurement of the change or gift in question and that the donee was a substantial beneficiary of the gift, then a presumption of undue influence arose and the burden shifted to the opposing party to provide a reasonable explanation for the testamentary change or gift. If a reasonable explanation was provided, then the burden shifted back to the party claiming undue influence to prove its claims. In 2002, the legislature altered Carpenter’s burden shifting scheme. Pursuant to Sections 733.1071 and 90.304, Florida Statutes, once the presumption of undue influence arises, the opposing party bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the gift in question was not the result of undue influence. Thus, it is no longer sufficient to provide a reasonable explanation for the testamentary change or gift. Once the presumption is raised, a party must prove that the testamentary change was a result of the grantor’s own free will.
1 Although this provision is part of the trust code, it provides that the presumption of undue influence implements public policy against abuse of fiduciary or confidential relationships, and is, therefore, a presumption shifting the burden of proof under Sections 90.301-90.304, Florida Statutes. Thus, because the legislature has declared that the presumption of undue influence implements public policy, the shifting burden of proof is equally applicable to actions alleging undue influence in the procurement of a trust.