What Must Be Proven to Show Undue Influence?
Written by Ed Wallis
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Our Firm has a Probate Litigation practice group that assists clients with will, trust and conservatorship challenges in Tennessee courts. The case of In re Estate of Harold Curtis Morrison, No. E2014-00764 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 14, 2015) (Morrison) looked at a question involving the pre-death, inter vivos transfers of all real and personal property to a decedent’s friend and caretaker.
Decedent Harold Morrison (“Mr. Morrison”) died on May 25, 2012 at the age of seventy with no widow and no children. He owned two large tracts of land and various personal property, including a significant amount of tractors and farm equipment. After Mr. Morrison’s death, his brother filed an action to set aside inter vivos transfers from Mr. Morrison to a farmhand based on undue influence on a Tennessee testator.
Throughout the vast majority of his life, Mr. Morrison labored on his farm. He was industrious, independent and stubborn. In approximately 2005, Mr. Morrison’s health began to decline. At the same time, Ronnie H. Jordan, Sr. (“Mr. Jordan”) moved onto Mr. Morrison’s land into a small residence. He began assisting Mr. Morrison with farming work, taking on the role of personal caretaker during the months prior to Mr. Morrison’s death. Despite health limitations, witnesses testified that Mr. Morrison’s mental state showed no deterioration. At the court’s hearing on the claim filed, a number of witnesses confirmed that Mr. Morrison came to depend upon Mr. Jordan and that Mr. Morrison maintained a good relationship with Mr. Jordan. Only two witnesses testified as to a particular instance of possible mental infirmity by Mr. Morrison, one involving a voting machine difficulty and one involving a singular instance of over-medication.
Mr. Morrison’s personal physician testified there was no change or deterioration in his patient’s mental health. The attorney that drafted the property transfer documentation also testified there was no lack of mental capacity by Mr. Morrison.
Witnesses also confirmed the lack of relationship between Mr. Morrison and his brother, the challenger. For example, the attorney who drafted the paperwork testified that Mr. Morrison stated he did not want to leave his last pair of dirty socks to his brother. Similarly, others testified that Mr. Morrison was upset with his brother because his brother borrowed money from him and never paid it back. The brother even went so far as to admit under oath he did not help with errands, health care or chores for Mr. Morrison. All of these tasks, in fact, were left to Mr. Jordan.
The issue in the Morrison case involved whether Mr. Jordan maintained a confidential relationship with Mr. Morrison. In Tennessee, confidential relationships can assume a variety of forms. Robinson v. Robinson, 517 S.W.2d 202, 206 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1974). In general, a confidential relationship is “one that gives one person the ability to exercise dominion and control over another.” Kelly v. Johns, 96 S.W.3d 189, 197 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002). Not simply a relationship of mutual trust, it is one “where confidence is placed by one in the other and the recipient of that confidence is the dominant personality, with ability, because of that confidence, to influence and exercise dominion and control over the weaker or dominated party. Iacometti v. Frassinelli, 494 S.W.2d 496, 499 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1973).
In Tennessee, a fiduciary relationship (such as guardian/ward, attorney/client, conservator/incompetent) is confidential per se because of the legal status of the parties. Johns, 96 S.W.3d at 197. Other relationships, however, are not per se confidential. Id. The party claiming there is a confidential relationship holds the burden of doing so. Brown v. Weik, 725 S.W.2d 938, 945 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983). In fact, there
must be a showing that there were present the elements of dominion and control by the stronger over the weaker, or there must be a showing of senility or physical and mental deterioration of the donor or that fraud or duress was involved, or other conditions which would tend to establish that the free agency of the donor was destroyed and the will of the donee was substituted therefor.
Kelly v. Allen, 558 S.W.2d 845, 848 (Tenn. 1977). The core definition of a confidential relationship requires proof of dominion and control. Childress v. Currie, 74 S.W.3d 324, 329 (Tenn. 2002). In other words, the court must determine whether the weaker party’s decision was a free and independent choice, or otherwise induced by the dominant party. Williamson v. Upchurch, 767 S.W.2d at 270.
In the Morrison case, the Court found that it was “undisputed” that there was no fiduciary relationship between the Decedent and Mr. Jordan. There was no proof that Mr. Jordan exercised dominion and control over Mr. Morrison. In fact, the opposite was true, as Mr. Morrison controlled the relationship with Mr. Jordan. There were no signs of mental deterioration of susceptibility to influence by Mr. Morrison. To the contrary, there was ample proof by neighbors, friends, a doctor and a lawyer that Mr. Morrison was strong-willed, independent and alert. Because there was no confidential relationship between Mr. Morrison and Mr. Jordan, there could be no undue influence, as a claim of undue influence is dependent upon the existence of a confidential relationship. Matlock v. Simpson, 902 S.W.2d 384, 386 (Tenn. 1995).
While each claim is different, the Morrison case helps reveal the specific types of evidence needed to prove undue influence. Feel free to contact our firm for more information to see if we can help: