Litigating Undue Influence Claims in an Estate

When a loved one dies, the family and friends left behind sometimes find themselves in a dispute over the decedent’s property or money. In some cases, the remaining heirs find that the property they thought the decedent owned was already given away or transferred before the decedent died. In such cases, the surviving heirs may bring claims where they assert there was “undue influence” exerted upon the decedent before he passed away in an effort to invalidate the transfer.
In a recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case, In re Estate of Harold Curtis Morrison, the decedent’s surviving brother, and only heir, faced a situation where the decedent transferred all of his real estate and personal property to the decedent’s friend/on-property-live-in-resident/caregiver. The real estate was transferred via quit claim deeds approximately ten months before the decedent died.
The case was tried to a Judge, not a jury. The Judge heard testimony from the decedent’s attorney, the decedent’s doctor, longtime friends, the person who received the property, and the surviving brother. The Court concluded that the facts established that the decedent was “stubborn, headstrong, and opinionated” and that there was no proof that the property recipient exercised dominion or control over the decedent. The Court went on to find that no fiduciary relationship existed between the decedent and the property recipient. In other words, the lifetime gifts were done as a result of the decedent’s own free will and independent judgment and not the result of a more dominant party’s undue influence. Thus, the Court denied the surviving brother’s challenge to the lifetime real estate gifts and allowed them to remain as transferred.
Litigation over estate claims are often taxing financially and emotionally and can last for years. In this case, the decedent passed away in 2012, yet the litigation continued on for the next three years. Working with an attorney who understands these tolls and the process is very important, especially at the outset of the matter.