When children are not treated equally in a will, there often is the suspicion that a favored heir took advantage of an elderly parent and exerted undue influence. At the same time, the law recognizes that parents have the right to favor one child over another if they write the will free of any coercion. A recent Florida appellate decision shows how a trial court can uphold a will that favors one child over others, and that such a will stands a better chance of withstanding a challenge if the decedent had good reasons for the favoritism and took other precautions to assure a court it was the product of his or her own free will.
In will challenges in Florida, the law shifts the burden of proof to a beneficiary who had a confidential relationship with the decedent or helped them procure a will. Placing the burden of proof on the accused shows how seriously Florida views these claims and its determination to protect the vulnerable elderly. However, knowing how difficult it can be to establish the intentions of a decedent, Florida requires only a preponderance of evidence – essentially a 51 percent burden of proof – which lessens the impact of burden shifting, as shown in this case. Some practitioners may not realize the plaintiff’s advantage applies only when the judge feels the trial was an even tie between plaintiff and defendant.
One child receives small share of estate
When Arlene Matthews-Walton died in 2017, she specified that one daughter – Marvalene Hannibal – was to receive only four percent of the proceeds from the sale of her house, while her four other children would each receive 24 percent. Matthews-Walton also left a vacant Key West lot exclusively to one daughter – Portia Brandy Navarro. Other assets were divided equally among four of the children, with Hannibal receiving nothing of the remainder.
Hannibal challenged the will, claiming that her sister, Navarro, who cared for their mother in her last years, had exerted undue influence over her. The courts rightfully scrutinize a situation where someone who has a confidential relationship with the decedent is favored in a will, and at first glance this case seemed ripe for a successful challenge. Navarro stipulated at the beginning of the case that she would have to prove the will was not the result of undue influence and the parties proceeded to trial. The case is Hannibal and Matthews v. Navarro and Thurston.
A bad loan and resentment
Testimony revealed that in 1989, Matthews-Walton took out a mortgage on her home at a high interest rate so that she could loan Hannibal money to open a bar and restaurant in Key West. The business failed and Hannibal never repaid her mother. Witnesses said the debt placed a financial burden on the mother and led to resentment toward her daughter. In contrast, Navarro had a close relationship with her mother and cared for her personally and financially over the years.
In other words, the mother had a good reason to give Hannibal a much smaller portion of her estate and to reward Navarro with a larger portion. The trial court recognized this as a reasonable explanation for the disparate treatment of the children and sided with Navarro, as did the Third District Court of Appeal.
The importance of a trigger in explaining unequal treatment
There were a number of factors that worked in Navarro’s favor and refuted the claim of undue influence.
- There was a “trigger” – the bad restaurant loan and resulting resentment – that explained why the mother elected to exclude one daughter from receiving an equal share of her assets. Judges often will look for a trigger, and if you have one, be sure your lawyer knows about it.
- The will was written in 2003 and Matthews-Walton died in 2017. This was not a last-minute, deathbed change in the will. She had plenty of time to change her mind if she so desired.
- This was not a complete disinheritance since Hannibal received a small share of the estate. This makes a will look more reasonable and the decision more thoughtful.
- With the exception of the lot left to Navarro, the will treated three other children equally. Only Hannibal was treated disproportionately, again showing that favoritism was the exception rather than the rule.
- Since Navarro cared for her mother’s needs, including financially, in her final years, it’s understandable why her mother would have treated her more favorably in the will. A dutiful child often should be rewarded.
- The mother’s attorney took careful notes when they discussed the will. His testimony supported Navarro’s defense that the mother was of clear mind and free of undue influence when she executed the will. A lawyer’s testimony and notes are powerful in such cases.
Many estate planners properly require anyone who is a beneficiary of the will to leave the room when they discuss it with the client. Also when clients make handwritten notes, written from the comfort of their home for the benefit of the estate planner, those can go a long way in convincing a court this was their true testamentary intent.
Red flags will draw attention of court
Your attorney also should be aware of what have become known as the “Carpenter factors,” based on a Florida Supreme Court case that was later codified in state law. The court outlined seven potential red flags that could indicate undue influence. They are:
- the presence of a beneficiary when the will is executed.
- the presence of a beneficiary when the testator expressed a desire to make or change a will.
- retaining an attorney recommended by a beneficiary.
- a beneficiary’s knowledge of the content of a will prior to its execution.
- a beneficiary giving instructions to the attorney for provisions of the will.
- a beneficiary securing witnesses to a will.
- a beneficiary safekeeping the will.
None of these factors alone will necessarily disqualify a will, but they may prompt a court to shift the burden of proof to a defendant. Your lawyer should be alert to these compromising factors and help you improve the enforceability of a will that is likely to draw a challenge from a dissatisfied family member.
Family relationships are complex and don’t always end in a happy, storybook fashion. None of us can rule the world from the grave or be assured of what will happen to our estates once we are gone. But if you and your attorney follow these guidelines, it’s much more likely that your final wishes will be carried out.