Claim of Undue Influence may have Unintended Results

Often we get clients who are interested in objecting to a will because of undue influence.  In Florida there is a split of authority over what happens to a previous will when the most recent will is invalidated by undue influence.  The results can be very different and may provide planning opportunities that could insulate from claim of undue influence.  As you can see in the case information below, the court determined that the previous will should be valid, while other courts in the states have found that intestacy is the proper method distributing assets after a successful  claim of undue influence.  If you are changing your will or would like to talk about how to protect from claims of undue influence in Florida, you might talk with a Jacksonville Estate Planning lawyer or Jacksonville Undue Influence Lawyer about your options.

The case of Rocke v. Am. Research Bureau (In re Estate of Murphy), 184 So. 3d 1221

This is a case where the probate court revoked a will due to undue influence.  The question then turned on whether or not the decedent’s estate should pass through intestate succession or by a previous will.

History of the case leading up to the claim of Undue Influence.

The testator was Virginia Murphy, a woman that passed away at the age of 107.  Her estate was worth 12 million dollars.  The decedent executed six wills throughout her lifetime.  Murphy’s parents and husband predeceased her, and she had no children or siblings.

Murphy was not a particularly popular person.  She was not close to many of her relatives and had few friends.  The six wills differed only slightly and mainly concerned 4 heirs: (1) Jacquelin Rocke, Murphy’s second cousin; (2) Jack Carey, Murphy’s long-time attorney that prepared the wills and served as the estate’s personal representative; (3)Gloria DuBois, the legal assistant to Jack Carey, and; (4) George Tornwall, Murphy’s accountant.

Murphy kept these four people as beneficiaries in all six wills, but Murphy often changed the amounts each person received. In a previous will executed in 1992, Murphy gave Rocke $400,000, DuBois $150,000, and she gave $100,000 to Tornwall and Carey.  Further, the residuary of the estate was divided into equal shares between the four people.

Murphy’s last will was executed in 1994.  The major change between the previous wills is how Murphy divided the residuary estate.  In this will, Rocke was no longer a beneficiary of the residuary estate.  Instead, the residuary of the estate was divided between only Carey, DuBois, and Tornwall.

Rocke claimed that Rocke and DuBois exerted undue influence over Murphy.  The probate court agreed and invalidated the will.

Legal Issue regarding the Claim of Undue Influence.

The legal issue then became “should a previous will control Murphy’s estate or should the estate pass by intestate succession”.  A previous will can be used under the doctrine of dependent relative revocation.  This doctrine has been stated and reiterated by many courts since it was first expounded in 1717, but stated simply it means that where a testator makes a new will revoking a former valid one, and it later appears that the new one is invalid, the old will may be re-established on the ground that the revocation was dependent upon the validity of the new one, the testator preferring the old will to intestacy.

The appeals court determined the proper analysis in this case on remand should have proceeded along the following sequence: (i) did Ms. Rocke establish sufficient similarity between Mrs. Murphy’s wills that would have given rise to the doctrine of dependent relative revocation; (ii) if so, were there sufficient record facts to overcome that presumption so that the 1994 will’s revocation clause could withstand; and (iii) if not, if the presumption remained intact, which, if any, will or residuary devise in Mrs. Murphy’s prior wills reflected her true testamentary intention?

Ms. Rocke argues that the wills, when viewed broadly, were fairly similar and the dispositional plan remained fairly constant.  Rocke also argued that the fact Murphy executed so many wills is also evidence of the decedent’s intent to leave property through a will.  The court stated, in determining whether testamentary instruments are sufficiently similar for purposes of the doctrine of dependent relative revocation, a court should always look first to the documents themselves.

The Court did find that the 1994 will and the previous wills were similar.  “Comparing Mrs. Murphy’s wills in the appropriately broad light, and in the light of all the evidence, we find there were sufficient similarities between Mrs. Murphy’s 1994 will and her prior wills to support the application of the doctrine of dependent relative revocation to the 1994 will.”   The court agreed with Rocke that the wills were similar in a broad sense because the wills all left property to these four main beneficiaries in a similar testamentary scheme.

The court also agreed with Rocke that Murphy did intend to leave her estate through intestate succession because she created so many wills.  Further, none of the 48 intestate heirs identified in the final order were mentioned in any of the wills.  It was unlikely that Murphy ever intended to leave her estate for the benefit of any of these distant family members.

Conclusion of the Appeal regarding Undue Influence.

The court found that in cases of undue influence over a testator, the presumption from the doctrine of dependent relative revocation requires only a showing of broad similarity between the wills.  The doctrine’s presumption arises the burden of proof then shifts to the opponent of the presumption to show that the testator held an independent, unaffected intention to revoke the otherwise affected will. Having clarified the doctrine’s application, we find that the presumption under the doctrine was established here and was not rebutted.  The probate court erred and should have admitted the February 1992 will to probate with Ms. Rocke receiving the residuary of the estate as the last remaining devisee.

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