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Today, Florida Statute 733.107 has been passed to override part of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision back in 1971, when the famous (at least in legal circles) case came down: In re Estate of Carpenter, 253 So.2d 697 (Fla. 1971).  The Florida Legislature can pass laws that block what the Highest Court in the State has ruled.

However, In Re Carpenter is still important to anyone seeking to contest a Last Will and Testament here in Florida. Much of Carpenter still applies today.

Carpenter and Undue Influence Challenges to Florida Wills

For one thing, the Carpenter case sets out the basic legal requirements here in Florida for what someone must do to prove there has been undue influence exerted over the decedent by an evildoer when the decedent created his or her will.

As established by the Florida Supreme Court, “undue influence” must be proven by evidence provided by the person challenging the will in specific ways. Never-mind that it may be hard to find facts and documents and witnesses to support what is suspected in these cases!

In Florida, the judge and jury will be legally required to presume there has been undue influence once there is evidence that:

1. The alleged evildoer had a “confidential relationship” with the decedent (that’s a specific kind of relationship with certain characteristics to be shown);
2. The alleged evildoer inherited a lot under the challenged will (in legalese, was a “substantial beneficiary”); and
3. The alleged evildoer was involved in getting the Last Will and Testament finalized.

Once these three things have been proven with authenticated, admissible evidence by the party challenging the will, then the law will find the challenged will to be unenforceable and the court will deem it “invalid.” In legal terms, the “burden of proof” shifts.

At that point, the prior will takes effect. If there was no prior will, Florida intestacy laws determine who gets what of the decedent’s property.

Background of In Re Carpenter: The Bad Sister

In the Carpenter case, the widow Carpenter made a will only 4 days before she died, leaving all her worldly goods to her daughter Mary. Mary’s three brothers were cut out of inheriting anything by this will; two of them, Ben and Bill, filed a will contest. They argued that their mother had been “unduly influenced” to make that will and exclude them (and their brother Sam).

A Florida judge in the local probate court made the initial determination. He found that the Widow Carpenter, who died at the age of 52 years, not only took care of her own business affairs until the time of her death, but that she had followed all the usual formalities of a Last Will and Testament: it was witnessed by two people, etc. The judge also found that the Widow had voiced she wished to leave her estate to her four children equally, and that she was most fond of her son Ben, who had helped her more than her other children in many ways, including financially.

As for Mary, the judge found that when Mary visited her mother shortly before her death, and realized she was seriously ill, she moved her mother into a local hospital. There, Mary had the phone removed from the hospital room and rushed her lawyer to the scene, where she told the attorney her mother’s wishes were that Mary get everything.

The lawyer drafted the document accordingly. He testified that alone in the room with the Widow Carpenter, he asked her on two separate occasions if she wished to disinherit her sons and leave her entire estate to Mary and it was only after he was sure this was her intent that he brought in the witnesses and finalized the will.

The Florida judge found that there was undue influence, pointing to the fact that no doctor was consulted about the Widow Carpenter’s ability to understand what was happening at the time the will was executed, as well as Mary keeping the new will secret from her brothers before it was executed; and there being no evidence to support the explanation given in the will for the disinheritance, i.e., that her “sons didn’t love her.”

The Carpenter Factors

Of course, Mary appealed the probate judge’s ruling. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that there was undue influence here, and gave guidance to both probate lawyers and probate judges on situations of undue influence in a will contest.

These have come to be known as the “Carpenter Factors” and they are:

a) presence of the beneficiary at the execution of the will;
b) presence of the beneficiary on those occasions when the testator expressed a desire to make a will;
c) recommendation by the beneficiary of an attorney to draw the will;
d) knowledge of the contents of the will by the beneficiary prior to execution;
e) giving of instructions on preparation of the will by the beneficiary to the attorney drawing the will;
f) securing of witnesses to the will by the beneficiary; and
g) safekeeping of the will by the beneficiary subsequent to execution.

Florida Statute and In Re Carpenter: Who Has the Evidence Burden

After the Carpenter case, the Florida Legislature amended Florida Statute 733.107 regarding the burden of proof in an undue influence will contest in Florida. The new law doesn’t gut what the Supreme Court found to be factors that show or establish undue influence in the making of a will (the Carpenter Factors). It changes who has what burden of bringing evidence to the court in a will contest based upon undue influence.

Under the statute, as a matter of public policy, the job of providing evidence of the claim cannot be shifted — once a will has been shown to be sufficient on its face as meeting the requirements of a Last Will and Testament under the Florida Probate Code, and a will contest is filed, there will be a legal presumption of undue influence unless the defender can prove otherwise:

1. The party asserting there has been undue influence must provide evidence that there is enough for a legal presumption of undue influence (as established in Carpenter);
2. If that burden of proof is met, then the person defending the challenged will as valid must show that there was NOT undue influence (by a preponderance of the evidence, roughly 51%).

From Florida Statute 733.107:

(2) The presumption of undue influence implements public policy against abuse of fiduciary or confidential relationships and is therefore a presumption shifting the burden of proof under ss. 90.301-90.304.

Challenging a Will in Florida

If you or a loved one believe that there may have been some questionable circumstances surrounding the drafting of a loved one’s will, then you need to get the advice and counsel of a Florida Probate Lawyer who can help you determine what has happened legally and what documents and testimony you will need to prove (and win) your case.

Undue influence challenges can be complicated and emotional fights, and it can be difficult to find support that cannot only be authenticated as proper to serve as evidence before the court, but can also be admitted over challenges to evidence that include hearsay and the like.