ESTATES, WILLS and DIVISION OF REAL PROPERTY

Caretakers play a significant role in the lives of elderly individuals by assisting them through difficulties they encounter in their daily lives and in managing their personal affairs. Because of this, caretakers often have a lot of control over the lives of those they care for. This gives the caretaker significant influence over the lives and actions of the person they are taking care of. In the case of Mitchell v. Brooks from Marshall County, Alabama, the Alabama Supreme Court addressed the issue of undue influence in the context of a marriage, when the husband is acting as the wife’s primary caretaker until her death.

Gayron executed a will in January 2001 allowing David, her husband, to live in the Boaz house after her death until he remarried, cohabitated with another woman, or died. When one of these occurs, the home would become the property of Teresa and Steve, Gayron’s children from a prior marriage.

In May 2015, Gayron was diagnosed with cancer and told that she had approximately six months to live. In October, she went to Charles Hare so she could finalize a new will, which would allow David to live in the house for a year after Gayron’s death. After that year, Teresa and Steve would take ownership of the house.

A month later, David contacted George Barnett, a local attorney, following a conversation with Gayron where she expressed that she wanted David to have the house. Barnett advised David that, if Gayron wanted to leave the house to David but her will did not reflect that, she could give David the house by deed instead. On November 7th 2015, Gayron started to make a list of how she wanted things to be handled after her death while she was in the company of David and Steve. Gayron made separate lists for David, Steve, and Teresa. For each, she listed property she presumably wanted each to have after her death. Gayron wrote the house in David’s list.

Barnett went to the Boaz house on November 11th 2015 so that Gayron could execute a deed to David for the house. According to Barnett, Gayron appeared to understand the documents when he explained them to her, she did not appear to be under any sort of duress, and that she said she wanted to deed the house to David. Gayron died on November 29th. Teresa and Steve brought suit against David in June 2016, claiming that Gayron only executed the deed because of David’s undue influence over her.

Undue influence occurs when a person’s influence overtakes the free agency of another such that it serves the interests of the influencer. For an inter vivos gift, or a gift between living people, the party claiming undue influence must show that the giver and recipient’s relationship was confidential and that the recipient was the dominant party in the relationship. If shown, then the recipient has the opportunity to show that they were not the dominant party or to show that the gift was “fair, just, and equitable.”

Because married individuals are per se in a confidential relationship, the Court found Gayron and David’s relationship was a confidential relationship. The Court also stated that Teresa and Steve met the burden of showing that David was the dominant party in the relationship because of how heavily Gayron depended on David for daily activities and managing her affairs.

In arguing that he was not the dominant party in the relationship, David presented evidence that Gayron had been conflicted about her estate plans, that she had often expressed that she wanted David to have the house both to David and to others outside his presence, and that Barnett stated that Gayron did not appear to be under duress when she executed the deed. The trial court stated that this showed that David was not the dominant party in the relationship. The Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed the decision because it was not “palpably erroneous or manifestly unjust.”

If you need help with probating a will, an estate or contesting an estate, please call Ingram Law at (205) 438-6666.  Let us determine if you have a case and the best course of action.

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