Sunday, January 8, 2006
A contestant alleging the invalidity of a will because of undue influence must be able to produce evidence that undue influence was exerted. A mere dissatisfaction with the disposition of property is not enough.
The recent case of Cotten v. Cotten, 169 S.W.3d 824 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2005, pet. filed), is instructive. Two brothers, Neel and George, disagreed over the validity of their mother’s will. At issue in this litigation is whether George exercised undue influence over Mother when she executed her estate planning documents including a will, trust, and family limited partnership. The trial court granted summary judgment to George determining that Neel had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact on his undue influence claim.
The appellate court affirmed. The court explained that a court may not infer undue influence by opportunity alone and that there must be evidence to show the exertion of undue influence. Evidence showed that Mother was 84 years old and had survived a stroke. Although this evidence may be important in showing susceptibility and ability to resist, by itself, it was not enough to show undue influence especially in this case where Mother was active, had just returned from a trip to Alaska, and was very engaged in the estate planning process. The court rejected a variety of circumstances explaining that they did not demonstrate undue influence. For example, George’s daughter lived with Mother which, the court explained, did not create a fiduciary relationship between George and Mother. Also, the fact that George benefited more than Neel from the estate plan was easily explained by the strained relationship between Neel and Mother.