Undue influence is “influence which by force, coercion, or over-persuasion destroys the free agency of the [individual signing a document].” Tobias v. Korman, 141 S.W.3d 468, 475 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004). If undue influence existed, then the underlying document is void. Undue influence generally is litigated in cases involving the validity of wills, trusts or other testamentary documents.
A presumption of undue influence arises when (1) there is the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the influencer and signer, (2) the influencer receives a substantial benefit from the document, and (3) the influencer was active in procuring execution of the document conferring the benefit. Vancil v. Carpenter, 935 S.W.2d 42, 44 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996). Element (1) — a confidential/fiduciary relationship — is misleading. A confidential/fiduciary relationship is not used solely in its strict, formal sense, but may simply mean whenever one trusts in and relies on another. Id.
The important of the “presumption” merits further explanation because it does not necessarily mean that the plaintiff automatically wins if those three elements are present. Instead, the presumption of undue influence matters because if a Plaintiff is able to show the existence of all three of these elements in a jury trial, then the Plaintiff will be able to submit the matter to the jury for deliberations. In a case tried by a judge, the presumption is less important because judges are given more flexibility in weighing and evaluating evidence. Whether tried by judge or jury, the critical question in an undue influence case is if (a) the influencer exerted influence and (b) the signer was actually influenced in executing the document.
Undue influence claims are extraordinarily fact sensitive and contextual. The facts and circumstances leading to the execution of the underlying document are crucial, as well as the relationship between the parties. Further, Courts have consistently stated that the signer’s mental and physical condition are “highly material” to the issue of undue influence because it would indicate whether the signer was susceptible to undue influence. Watermann v. Fizpatrick 369 S.W.3d 69, 75 (Mo. Ct. App. 2012). From a defendant’s perspective, it is difficult to prevail on such a case before trial.
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