Undue Influence & Fraud Presumptions in Estate Litigation
Undue influence is a legal concept that occurs when a third-party coerces and improperly influences another person to sign a document or make a property conveyance. It exists when the influencer destroys the will of the signer to where the influencer’s will is substituted for the signer’s will. Because in such cases the wishes expressed in the document (e.g., will, trust, non-probate transfer, beneficiary designation, etc.) is the will of the influencer, a Court will set the transaction aside if it is satisfied that undue influence exists. Undue influence requires a substantial amount of evidence. Rarely does direct evidence of it exist. Thus, circumstantial and indirect evidence is often utilized.
There is at least one significant exception to this rule that is worth noting. Where a gift of money or property — including a testamentary gift through a will, trust, etc. — is made by a client to an attorney during the course of the attorney-client relationship, a rebuttable presumption of fraud and undue influence is established. In re Estate of Mapes, 738 S.W.2d 853, 854 (Mo. 1987). The reason for this rule is that the law desires to protect the confidential and fiduciary attorney-client relationship. Accordingly, the burden is on the attorney to prove by convincing evidence that the transaction itself was fair and equitable in every respect and not an abuse of the attorney’s position to where he/she is able to arrange for the transfer to himself/herself. Laspy v. Aderson, 361 S.W.2d 680 (Mo. 1962). This rule extends to all transactions where the relationship between the parties would give the attorney some advantage over the client. Flanagan v. DeLapp, 533 S.W.2d 592, 596 (Mo. 1976).
Interestingly, Missouri cases do not create a presumption of fraud or undue influence if an attorney is named as a trustee, personal representative, or fiduciary in an estate planning document of a client. This seems a bit counter-intuitive because those positions can often be lucrative and may seem to invite the same dangers that the foregoing presumption of undue influence attempts to avoid. Nonetheless, that is presently the state of the law in Missouri (something which will likely remain unchanged).
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