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Appellate Court Affirms Involuntary Dismissal of Undue Influence Claim

Published: January 6th, 2016

By: Daryl J. Krauza

Recently, the Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a son’s undue influence claims brought against his sister in Luciani v. Nealon, 2015 WL 7782819 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015). Rule 1.420(b), Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, allows the trial court to involuntarily dismiss a case when, after viewing the evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, the evidence fails to establish a prima facie case on the non-moving party’s claims.

In this case, the son of the decedent claimed that his sister unduly influenced and defrauded their mother in procuring her October 4, 2011 will. The son also claimed the decedent lacked testamentary capacity. The decedent died approximately six months after executing her will. Unfortunately, the appellate court’s decision does not reveal any other facts.

Although the trial court had improperly weighed the evidence in dismissing the case, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal pursuant to the “tipsy coachman doctrine,” which provides the trial court reached the correct conclusion for the wrong reasons. In considering a Rule 1.420(b) motion, the trial court cannot weigh evidence, even in a non-jury case where the judge is the trier of fact. As stated above, the trial court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Essentially, the movant admits the truth of all the facts in evidence.

After reviewing the entire record and considering the evidence presented (without stating what the evidence actually was) in the light most favorable to the decedent’s son, the appellate court concluded that the son failed to establish a “prima facie case” for his claims of fraud, undue influence, and testamentary capacity. That means the son did not present any facts to support certain elements of his claims. The case could be significant in defending future will contest cases.

About the Author:
Daryl Krauza is a shareholder in Dean Mead’s Fort Pierce office. He practices in the areas of business litigation, construction law and litigation, real estate litigation, quiet title actions, bankruptcy and creditors’ rights. Mr. Krauza represents several financial institutions and title companies. In addition, he has litigated complex probate and trust matters, and represents trustees, personal representatives and family members in controversies regarding wills, trusts and estates. He may be reached at (772) 464-7700 or DKrauza@deanmead.com.