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WILLS/TRUSTS 22: Boyfriend exerted undue influence over mother’s trust.

Shortly before her death, the mother changed her estate plan to leave only nominal gifts to her children and grandchildren and the bulk of her estate to her boyfriend. Three of her sons petitioned the probate court to invalidate the trust, claiming that the boyfriend exerted undue influence over their mother.

The mother was 63 years old when she suffered a fatal heart attack likely caused by the effects of acute and chronic alcoholism. She is survived by four sons, two daughters-in-law, four grandchildren, and an ex-husband.

In 2011 or 2012, the mother met her boyfriend online. In 2012, he moved to Michigan to be with her.

The mother’s family and friends expressed concern about her relationship with the boyfriend. The boyfriend was unemployed, and the mother financially supported him. The mother had battled alcoholism throughout her life but had been sober for an extended period when she met the boyfriend. The boyfriend drank around the mother and the mother relapsed. The boyfriend exacerbated the problem by supplying the mother with alcohol.

The mother’s sons stopped visiting her because the boyfriend was hostile and even violent toward them. Longtime friends and relations noted that the mother would not speak to them on the phone when the boyfriend was around and would call or text at odd hours. And then the mother became ill; she lost a significant amount of weight, needed assistance to walk, and let her personal hygiene go. Yet, the mother continued to drink and had a blood alcohol level of 0.26 at the time of death.

The mother had established a revocable living trust in 2008. That trust is not part of the record, but several witnesses testified that the mother had always expressed her intent to leave her estate to her children.

On October 20, 2015, the mother executed a new trust, revoking her 2008 estate plan.

The mother essentially disinherited her family, leaving $1,000 to each of her children, $500 to each of her grandchildren, and a watch to a granddaughter. The remainder of the mother’s estate flowed to the boyfriend.

The family filed a probate court petition to invalidate the mother’s 2015 trust based on undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity. The matter proceeded to a seven-day bench trial.

A presumption of undue influence arises when there is evidence of (1) a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the grantor and a fiduciary, (2) the fiduciary or an interest he represents benefits from a transaction, and (3) the fiduciary had an opportunity to influence the grantor’s decision in that transaction.

When the presumption is established, the party seeking to enforce the trust must offer other evidence to rebut the presumption.

The court found that the mother and the boyfriend were in an intimate relationship and that she was dependent on him for assistance in maintaining her home and personal health.

The probate court rejected the boyfriend’s argument that she had retained her independence until her death. The court noted that witnesses had described the mother’s feeble and frail condition in the year preceding her estate plan changes, and many were shocked by her uncharacteristically unkempt appearance. The court also found that the mother wanted to maintain relationships with her family and friends and disliked her situation but felt helpless and unable to remedy the situation.

The evidence also supported that the boyfriend was driving the process to arrange and execute the estate plan changes.

The court ultimately invalidated the 2015 trust, finding that the evidence clearly established a presumption of undue influence that the boyfriend did not successfully rebut.

Aldrich Legal Services represents clients in a wide range of probate litigation matters. Given the emotional nature of these disputes and their financial impact on all involved, it is critical that anyone involved in such a dispute retain highly qualified legal counsel.

In addition to representing local clients, we have assisted many out-of-state clients who have required legal representation to resolve probate disputes here in Michigan. To schedule a consultation with an experienced probate litigation lawyer at our firm, contact our law office in Plymouth, Michigan.

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