Supreme Court Affirms No Presumption Of Undue Influence Arises From A Confidential Relationship Between Spouses

In In re Estate of Langston, No. 2008-CT-01090-SCT, Patricia Langston created joint tenancies with in her home and a certificate of deposit with her husband, Mansfield, but did not leave him anything in her Will. Following her death, Patricia’s executor sued Mansfield to set aside the joint tenancies on the grounds of undue influence. The Chancellor found that a confidential relationship had existed between Mansfield and Patricia as a result of which a presumption of undue influence arose requiring Mansfield to produce clear and convincing evidence that he did not unduly influence Patricia to make the gifts. This, the Chancellor found, Mansfield was unable to do, and set aside the gifts. The Court of appeals rightly reversed the case, but instead of remanding it to the Chancery Court to allow the contestants to put on proof of actual undue influence, the Court of Appeals rendered the case. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling regarding the confidential relationship doctrine, but reversed and remanded the case to allow the contestants an opportunity to prove a case of actual (rather than presumptive) undue influence.

To hold as the Chancellor did that the confidential relationship that arises from marriage raises a presumption of undue influence would put in jeopardy every will of a married person in Mississippi who chooses to benefit his or her spouse to the exclusion of others. Fortunately, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court affirmed that the confidential relationship between a husband and wife does not raise a presumption of undue influence. In order to set aside a will or conveyance on the grounds of undue influence on the part of a spouse, the contestant must show that the devisee spouse used undue methods to procure the deed or will.

The Court also reminded us that the rules of law are different regarding gifts testamentary and gifts inter vivos where a confidential relationship exists between the testator/grantor and the beneficiary/grantee. In the context of a will, a presumption of undue influence only arises when there has been some abuse of the confidential relationship, such as some activity in procuring the will. On the other hand, with a gift inter vivos, there is an automatic presumption of undue influence even without abuse of the confidential relationship. Such gifts are presumptively invalid.

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