Relationship Poisoning

Relationship Poisoning

History of Undue Influence

Undue influence is one of the harder things to prove in an inheritance dispute. The doctrine of undue influence derives from English courts.  A will contest heard by Sir Francis Bacon as the Lord Chancellor of England in 1617 illustrates common aspects of the process of undue influence which emerged in the context of a will contest.  These aspects include frail health, physical dependency, false affection, relationship poisoning, threats and mistreatment, and involvement in the execution of documents by and in favor of the alleged abuser.

Relationship poisoning and undue influence.

What is relationship poisoning in the context of a will contest? A Texas court held that when a person makes negative remarks about a person’s children and reinterprets historical events in a negative manner, the jury can consider these acts as relationship poisoning. Based on the relationship poisoning, the jury can find undue influence  and the verdict will be upheld. 340 SW 3d 769. While relationship poisoning alone may or may not be sufficient proof of undue influence, if it has occurred it needs to be brought to the attention of the court because it will assist the court in determining if undue influence has occurred.

How bad people use undue influence

How bad people use undue influence

This article is about ways that people exert undue influence in Texas to obtain the property or estate of others.

Undue influence can take many forms. In a 2020 Texas case, Buford, a man with a below average IQ hired a private investigator, Tait, whose name he found in a phone book, to help him. Tait’s assistant was Irene Rueda.

Undue influence example. Tait and Rueda soon began providing Buford with other services, including cleaning, cooking, bill paying, shopping, and running errands. In fact, Rueda testified that she saw Buford almost every day for three years until his death in August of 2015. During these three years, Tait and Rueda submitted numerous invoices to Buford, billing him tens of thousands of dollars for their investigation and other services. In addition, Buford gave both Tait, Rueda, and their family members bonuses and gifts, including a $5,000.00 gift to Tait’s wife, despite the fact that Buford had admittedly never met his wife. In addition, the record contains evidence that Buford made large cash withdrawals from his account during the time that Tait and Rueda were providing services to him, some of which were signed by Tait, acting on Buford’s behalf.

Tait prepared wills

Buford did not have a will when he first met Tait and Rueda. Several wills were prepared by Tait and signed or written out by Buford. The will gave Tait and Rueda all of the real and personal property and $300,000 to Tait and $200,000 to Rueda. The total value was about 2.4 million dollars.

When the will was filed for probate, the cousins of Buford, his closest relatives, contested it. The jury ruled that the will were written under undue influence. Tait and Rueda appealed.

The appeals court, in addition to the above facts, set out the evidence supporting the jury verdict including:

  • Emails from Tait the he was “working” on Buford to make a will.
  • Bills from Tait for helping Buford prepare his will.
  • Tait had taken over virtually all of Buford’s legal affairs.
  • Tait accompanied Buford to every meeting with others.
  • Tait himself admitted that he could influence Buford to add provisions to his will.
  • After making the first will, Buford told someone that he had not yet decided what to do with his property.

Every case is different but undue influence is based on the overall conduct that is taking place and who benefits from it.

If you believe a loved one has been the subject of undue influence, you must act quickly. Remember, the two year statute of limitations for contesting a will doesn’t change even if the will is the result of undue influence.

Undue Influence in Texas can Invalidate Wills, Deeds, and Other Instruments

Relationship Poisoning And Undue Influence

Statute of limitations in Texas for contesting any document on undue influence or mental capacity

Statute of limitations in Texas for contesting any document on undue influence or mental capacity

In a 2019 case, a father had two daughters. He was an alcoholic and had a drug problem. One daughter lived close and saw him several times a week. The other daughter lived far away and saw him once or twice a year. Shortly before he died, the father changed all his accounts naming the daughter who lived close as the survivor of the accounts. He also deeded his real estate to the same daughter. He changed three of four life insurance policies to name only the daughter who live close by. One life insurance policy he left as it was leaving have to each daughter.

Shortly after the father died, the daughter who lived close by told her sister that her father did not have much and what he did have he had left to her. About six years after the father died, the sister who lived far away found out that her father’s estate was worth about $1 million. She filed suit against

the other sister claiming that her father was mentally incompetent to change the accounts or make the deeds and was being unduly influenced by her sister.

The claims were thrown out because the sister did not bring her claims within the statute of limitations. The court said “It is settled law in Texas that a contract executed by a person who lacks mental capacity is voidable, not void…A cause of action to void a contract is personal and belongs to the parties to a contract. The right to disaffirm a contract survives the death of an incompetent person and descends to his heirs or his personal representative…The right to disaffirm is subject to a four-year statute of limitations.” Because the complaining sister filed her claim after the statute of limitations had expired, her claim was dismissed.

If a person executes any document while they are mentally incompetent or under the undue influence of another, some action needs to be taken before the statute of limitations runs. 01-18-00661-CV.

10 Factors To Determine Undue Influence In Texas

10 Factors To Determine Undue Influence In Texas

Background

In a previous article, I noted that in a case involving undue influence in contesting a will in Texas, the elements of undue influence are:

  1. the existence and exercise of an influence upon the testator,
  2. which operated to subvert or overpower the testator’s mind at the time the will was executed, and…
  3. such that the execution would not have occurred but for the undue influence.

10 Factors To Determine Undue Influence In Texas

Some Texas courts have listed 10 factors to determine if the three elements of undue influence existed. They analyze the following ten factors to

determine whether the evidence establishes the elements of undue influence:

  1. The nature and type of relationship existing between the testator, the contestants and the party accused of exerting such influence;
  2. The opportunities existing for the exertion of the type of influence or deception possessed or employed;
  3. The circumstances surrounding the drafting and execution of the testament;
  4. The existence of a fraudulent motive;
  5. Whether there has been an habitual subjection of the testator to the control of another;
  6. The state of the testator’s mind at the time of the execution of the testament;
  7. The testator’s mental or physical incapacity to resist or the susceptibility of the testator’s mind to the type and extent of the influence exerted;
  8. The words and acts of the testator;
  9. Weakness of mind and body of the testator, whether produced by infirmities of age or by disease or otherwise;
  10. Whether the testament executed is unnatural in its terms of disposition of property.

Factors one through five relate to the first element; factors six through nine relate to the second element; and the tenth factor relates to the third element. The factors are not equivalent to the elements of undue influence, and proof satisfying every factor is not necessary to support a finding of undue influence. 13-16-00091-CV; 69 /3 598.

Summary

Courts have long recognized that the exertion of influence that was or became undue is usually a subtle thing and by its very nature usually involves an extended course of dealings and circumstances. Thus, direct evidence is usually not available so it may be proved by circumstantial evidence.

…even though none of the circumstances standing alone would be sufficient to show the elements of undue influence, if when considered together they produce a reasonable belief that an influence was exerted that subverted or overpowered the mind of the testator and resulted in the execution of the testament in controversy, the evidence is sufficient to sustain such conclusion.

Proving undue influence in a Texas will contest is difficult. Three elements and 10 factors? It is easy for someone not familiar with Texas inheritance and probate law to get lost.

Update: In 2019, the Tyler court of appeals determined that undue influence had been exerted. The court noted the following factors were important in its ruling:

  1. The need for money by the influencer;
  2. The testator was dependent on the influencer for her care and transportation;
  3. The influencer’s reinterpretation of historical events in a negative manner about testator’s children’
  4. The influencer’s presence when the will was signed and the lack of presence of any family members;
  5. On an unnatural disposition, the court said “One of the main objects of the acquisition of property by the parent is to give it to his child; and that child in turn will give it to his, in this way the debt of gratitude we owe to our parent is paid to our children. Id. Thereby, each generation pays what it owes to the preceding one by payment to the succeeding one. This seems to be the natural law for the transmission of property. Any departure from that course, though it may not be uncommon or unusual, is unnatural.” 12-18-00079-CV.

Robert Ray

Board Certified, Personal Injury Trial Law — Texas Board of Legal Specialization. We handle cases all across Texas. Our principal office is in Lantana, Texas (DFW area).

Robert Ray is a Texas attorney who handles inheritance disputes

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