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Challenging a will in Florida because of undue influence

On Behalf of | Aug 20, 2019 | Probate Litigation

Did your elderly or ill relative sign a new will just before death that changed their estate plan by leaving significant assets to an unexpected beneficiary? Had that beneficiary suddenly became overinvolved with your loved one under suspicious circumstances?

Bringing a will contest

These and other similar situations can raise serious concerns that the new will beneficiary may have acted improperly and exerted “undue influence” on the testator (person who drafted the will) to get them to leave an inheritance to the surprise beneficiary. Florida law allows interested persons, other beneficiaries or people deprived of inheritance by the suspicious will to file a lawsuit contesting the validity of the will and asking the court to invalidate it.

This kind of litigation is called a will contest. Undue influence is just one of the grounds on which a judge can invalidate a will, but it is not an uncommon basis.

Case illustrating undue influence

An example of a successful will contest based on undue influence is the 2015 case of Blinn v. Carlman in the Fourth District Court of Appeal of Florida. Blinn was an elderly testator who made major, unexpected changes to his prior will, which had left his estate to his daughter. In a new will, he instead named his fourth wife as his sole beneficiary.

His daughter successfully contested the new will based on undue influence by Blinn’s wife and the appeals court affirmed.

The Blinn court explained that Florida courts define 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 other words, the influencer asserts their own will so strongly that it overcomes the will of the testator.

Factors showing undue influence

The Blinn court pointed to “non-exhaustive factors” that the Florida Supreme Court had approved in 1971 for consideration in assessing undue influence:

  • Beneficiary’s presence when will signed
  • Beneficiary’s presence when the testator said they wanted to make a will
  • Beneficiary’s recommendation of a lawyer to draw up the will
  • Beneficiary’s knowledge of the will’s contents before its execution
  • Beneficiary’s communication with the drafting lawyer about the will’s provisions
  • Beneficiary’s choice of witnesses
  • Beneficiary’s possession of the will after its signing

Indicia of wife’s undue influence on Blinn

Blinn was almost 82 when he married his fourth wife. His mental and physical health had started to go downhill before the marriage and he already had a diagnosis of progressive dementia, which negatively impacted his behavior and decision-making ability. The year before he died (2012), a court found that he was incapacitated and appointed his daughter as his guardian.

Notably, the Blinn court recognized that when a testator is already “weak and his intellect clouded” it does not take much undue influence to overcome the testator’s own intentions.

Some of the “suspicious circumstances” the court found supported a finding of undue influence included:

  • The 2008 arrangements surrounding the drafting and execution of the new will involved two lawyers and their testimony was in conflict about the circumstances, which included the wife giving one of them a “loan” that was not repaid.
  • Wife gave the drafting lawyer letters from doctors that were nine months old and that said that she and Blinn were of sound mind.
  • Wife used Blinn’s “paranoia and mental infirmity” to alienate him from his kids and their families.
  • Wife accidently left a message on a former employee’s phone that picked up her screaming at Blinn and telling him apparent untruths about his daughter, including that the daughter was “stealing from him.”
  • Wife sent handwritten letters to Blinn’s insurers asking them to change the beneficiary from the daughter to the wife.
  • And more

A lawyer can provide advice about undue influence and will contests.