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Michigan Probate Litigation Cases & News
BlogsPublications | January 22, 2024
4 minute read
Michigan Probate Litigation Cases & News

How Much Evidence is Necessary for a Will or Trust Contestant to Carry Burden of Proof?

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently issued a decision that addresses how much evidence is necessary for a will or trust contestant to carry burden of proof. In re Estate of Scott, Nos 360651, 650652, 360653, & 360654, 2023 Westlaw 8866471 (Mich Ct App Dec 21, 2023) (unpublished).

In this case, the decedent, Matthew, entered an assisted living facility in Michigan after a fall caused a traumatic brain injury which resulted in ongoing cognitive deficits. Matthew participated in selecting the facility. Sprague, Matthew’s former neighbor, renewed his acquaintance with Matthew while he was in the assisted living facility. Facility staff observed that Sprague caused Matthew to become hostile about his placement in the facility and hostile towards his sons and their wives. Eventually, Sprague removed Matthew from the facility and brought him to live with Sprague, which isolated Matthew from his family. Shortly before Matthew’s death, Sprague took him to an attorney to execute new estate-planning documents which substantially benefited Sprague.

After Matthew’s death, his son Christopher petitioned the probate court to invalidate Matthew’s will, trust and lady bird deed on the basis of mental incapacity and/or undue influence. Following a five-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict for Christopher, finding that the new estate-planning documents were invalid due to both mental incapacity and undue influence. Sprague moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and/or new trial, both of which the probate court denied. Sprague then appealed.

In his appeal, Sprague argued that he was entitled to judgment despite the jury’s verdict, because Christopher had failed to present sufficient evidence to carry his burden of proof as to mental incapacity. The Court of Appeals disagreed. “Christopher presented evidence of Matthew's traumatic brain injury and the resulting deficits he suffered thereafter, as well as evidence of significant changes in his ability to rationally comprehend current and historical events.” Id at *5. “Evidence also indicated that Matthew held delusional beliefs regarding aspects of his life and relationships with family and friends. He did not merely forget his decision to live in an assisted living facility in Michigan, but departed from reality and substituted paranoid, delusional thinking for actual facts supported by evidence and testimonies of witnesses that demonstrated that he selected and approved the facility.” Id.

Christopher’s expert witness, Dr. Lichterman, “provided expert testimony of his retroactive assessments regarding Matthew's mental capacity and vulnerability to undue influence. The evidence presented at trial supported Christopher's claim that Matthew suffered from incapacity at the time he executed the estate planning documents at issue.” Id at *6. Sprague took Matthew to an attorney who testified that Matthew had mental capacity, but the attorney's testimony was undermined by the video recordings of his meetings with Matthew. The attorney’s “almost exclusive use of leading questions and repetition, and lack of and obvious avoidance of using open-ended questioning, and stopping and restarting of recording when Matthew apparently did not perform as planned, even after hours of prerecording discussion and preparation,” supported a finding of mental incapacity. Id.

In his appeal, Sprague also argued that he was entitled to judgment notwithstanding the jury’s verdict, because Christopher had failed to present sufficient evidence to carry his burden of proof as to undue influence. Again, the Court of Appeals disagreed. Notably, Christopher had not sought to establish a presumption of undue influence at trial, and so that issue was waived on appeal.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals presented a summary of Christopher’s evidence, stating, “Evidence established that Matthew lacked capacity and was particularly vulnerable to Sprague's persuasion and manipulation. Sprague exercised a degree of control and influence over Matthew in his vulnerable state and engaged in a protracted effort to isolate Matthew from his family, control contacts with them, and influence Matthew to change his estate planning documents to reap an extraordinary personal benefit. Evidence indicated that Matthew had been estranged from Sprague for nearly a decade and Sprague reinserted himself into Matthew's life when Matthew began living in the assisted living facility upon Matthew's return to Michigan. Medical records indicated that Matthew suffered from deficits and changed personality and emotional instability after his traumatic brain injury. Evidence did not demonstrate that he recovered from such. Evidence indicated that Matthew's behavior became more and more paranoid, irrational, and delusional as time passed after Sprague came back into Matthew's life. Witnesses testified that Sprague fostered such to enable removing Matthew from the assisted living facility to his own home where he isolated Matthew further from his family and friends, and encouraged Matthew's alienation from his family, particularly his sons and their wives.” Id at *7. This decision is significant because of the guidance it provides as to how much evidence is necessary to carry the burden of proof on mental incapacity and undue influence claims.

If you have concerns about the validity of a decedent’s estate-planning documents, please contact David Skidmore at 616.752.2491 or or contact another member of the firm’s Probate Litigation Practice Group.