Rebutting Presumption of Undue Influence

It’s over – at least for now.  The Mortimore case.

This is a case I have spoken and written about quite a bit for the past year.

Common facts: Older gentleman.  His wife of many years dies.  New woman becomes involved. Alienates family.  He dies.  She produces a will (surprise) leaving everything to her.

At the trial level, which I did not handle, a will contest takes place.  Trial court rules in favor of the woman (and against the kids).  Trial court says: I don’t know what to make of this, two very different stories. I am upholding the will.

I am retained to handle the appeal.  We raise the issue that the trial court failed to consider the presumption of undue influence that arises when a person (1) has a fiduciary/confidential relationship with the decedent, (2) the opportunity to influence the decedent, and (3) benefits from the document thereby created.

The Court of Appeals not only agrees, but reverses the decision of the trial court and throws out the will.  They say: had the trial court considered the presumption, they would have found the presumption applied, AND that the Appellee failed to rebut the presumption.  Nice Result!!

But, not the go down easy, woman hires counsel to request the Michigan Supreme Court review the Court of Appeals decision.  They agree the presumption applies, but they argue that the Court of Appeals failed to apply the proper standard for rebutting the presumption.

The Michigan Supreme Court accepts the case, briefs are filed, and oral arguments are held.  At the Supreme Court hearing, I am grilled by the Chief Justice who is clearly convinced that the Court of Appeals erred – specifically, that the standard that the Court of Appeals used to rebut the presumption (preponderance of evidence) is too high.  The thinking is that if the standard to rebut the presumption is a preponderance, the result, in effect, is that by establishing the presumption the burden of the entire cases is shifted to the party defending the document.

The truth is that Michigan Court of Appeals cases are all over the board on this.  The last pronouncement by the Michigan Supreme Court on this point was more than 30 years ago in Kar v Hogan, 399 Mich 529, 542; 251 NW2d 77 (1976).

The options are anywhere from a scintilla of evidence to a preponderance, with most cases coming down somewhere in between.

In light of my treatment at oral arguments, I was not hopeful about my prospects.  So, wasn’t I surprised when we received an order from the Michigan Supreme Court vacating the original order accepting the case.  In other words, they changed their minds and decided (after hearing oral arguments) that they never should have taken the case in the first place. That means they left the Court of Appeals decision in place.  Whew….

The Chief Justice wrote on lengthy dissent which offers one perspective on this issue.

The truth is that this is an important issue, and we don’t have clear law.  The problem is that if, as argued by the Chief Justice, the presumption of undue influence is given as much respect as are presumptions in other areas of the law (which is very little respect), the role of the presumption in protecting vulnerable adults will be diminished, and depending on the new standard adopted, perhaps dramatically so.
Request for reconsideration to the Michigan Supreme Court was denied, so, for now, the case is back in the trial court with the will thrown out.  There are other interesting issues in this case, which could lead us back into the appellate courts again, but the Supreme Court walked away from this opportunity to address is important and complicated issue.

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