Undue Influence: The Formidable Burden of Proof

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision illustrates once again just how difficult it can be to prove a case of undue influence.

In the case of In re Peace Estate, the daughters of the deceased (Jeannette) contested their mother’s will because they were cut out of her will.  They were opposed by Jeannette’s brother and sister-in-law.  The daughters were able to present evidence that their aging mother had become forgetful, had suffered from Alzheimer’s, and was being treated by a psychiatrist, all at the time she drafted her will.

Jeannette believed her daughters had stolen a large sum of money from her account, and thus excluded them from her will.  Three professionals Jeannette had hired testified to that cause at trial. Further, they confirmed that Jeannette was suffering from a declining mental state, but was still able to discern who her daughters were and what she owned.  They did not believe that the heirs in question were unduly controlling Jeannette.

The Court of Appeals upheld the Trial Court’s dismissal of the daughters’ case, primarily based upon their reliance upon the Trial Court’s assessment of the professional witnesses’ credibility and testimony.

The daughters in Peace had good reason to believe they could mount an impressive case contesting their mother’s “testamentary capacity.”  After all, she suffered from Alzheimer’s and other mental deficiencies.  They even established the rebuttable presumption of undue influence.  The fact that they still fell short demonstrates not only the high bar which must be surpassed in such cases, but also the importance of having expert opinion supporting a case for undue influence.  The bar is high, but it is not insurmountable.