In a will or trust contest, the party challenging the validity of the will or trust is called the contestant, and the party defending the validity of the will or trust is called the proponent. The contestant may claim that the will or trust is invalid because it resulted from undue influence by the proponent or another person. The contestant may establish a presumption that undue influence occurred, by offering evidence that: (1) there was a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the decedent and the alleged influencer; (2) the alleged influencer had the opportunity to influence the decedent; and (3) the alleged influencer received a benefit from a document signed, or a transaction performed, by the decedent. Then the burden shifts to the proponent to offer evidence rebutting the presumption of undue influence. If the proponent offers evidence tending to rebut the presumption, then there is a factual dispute as to whether undue influence occurred, to be resolved by the finder of fact (either the jury or the judge) at trial.
These principles were involved in In re Norma A. Bolster Living Trust, 2020 WL 815783, Docket No. 346814 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 18, 2020) (unpublished). Norma created a trust, which favored her son Ronald. After Norma died, her other children petitioned the Probate Court to invalidate the trust based on Ronald’s alleged undue influence. The contestants offered evidence establishing the presumption of undue influence. Ronald offered evidence tending to show that Norma acted independently and not from his undue influence.
Prior to trial, the contestants filed a summary disposition motion, asking the Probate Court to immediately rule in their favor. Ronald opposed the motion, claiming that there was a factual question to be decided at trial – whether or not Norma was the victim of undue influence. The Probate Court granted the contestants’ motion, found that undue influence had occurred, and invalidated the trust, all without conducting a trial.
Ronald appealed, arguing that he was entitled to a trial, because he had offered evidence tending to rebut the presumption. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed. “The record reflects that Ronald submitted evidence that, at the very least, established the existence of a genuine issue of material fact whether he rebutted the presumption of undue influence. … Therefore, the probate court erred by granting petitioners’ motion for summary disposition.”
What is to be learned from this case? If the contestant offers evidence establishing the presumption, and the proponent offers substantial evidence rebutting the presumption, then the case must go to trial, and summary disposition is improper. Summary disposition would only be proper if the contestant offered no evidence of undue influence, or if the proponent (faced with an established presumption) offered no evidence rebutting the presumption.