In this age of exploitation of vulnerable adults, undue influence is often the only legal theory available. It functions (even thrives) in a grey world where weakness, selfishness, wants, needs and expectations mix and mingle. And as a result of the unique and cloudy environment in which it operates, undue influence displays certain quirky features.
Most notable among its quirky features is the presumption of undue influence. This case touches on certain nuances of how that presumption operates.
[For the novice, a presumption of undue influence will arise in a case when the party contesting the act at issue can show (1) the perpetrator stood in a fiduciary or confidential relationship vis a vis the target of the undue influence, (2) the perpetrator had an opportunity to influence the target, and (3) the perpetrator benefited from the act at issue. If established, the presumption is rebuttable.]
In the unpublished opinion of In Re Estate of Carolynn Ann Horton (click on the name to read the case), the trial court granted summary disposition in favor of the party defending the validity of a beneficiary designation that had been challenged by Appellant as being the product of undue influence. The trial judge found that the Appellant had failed in its attempt to establish a presumption of undue influence because Appellant had failed to provide evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue that a confidential or fiduciary relationship existed between the decedent and the alleged perpetrator.
In reversing the trial judge, the COA touches on two issues worth note.
First, the COA clarifies that a fiduciary or confidential relationship sufficient to give rise to the presumption need not be a formal fiduciary relationship, such as an agent appointed under a power of attorney. Here, the perpetrator helped the decedent pay her bills and do her banking. This was enough to establish a confidential relationship for the purpose of giving rise to the presumption, and it was for this error that the trial court’s decision was reversed.
The second (and what I think is the more significant point) made by the Court of Appeals would probably correctly be characterized as dicta. It goes to the question of whether, once the presumption is established, a trial court may, notwithstanding, find that the presumption has been rebutted and still grant summary disposition. This is a critical issue, and there are cases out there that seem to go both ways. In this case, the COA implies that a trial judge cannot grant summary disposition once the presumption is established, and offers a seemingly logical explanation as to why that must be the rule.
Quoting from the opinion:
“It is well settled that a trial court may not make findings of fact or weigh credibility in deciding a motion for summary disposition.” In re Peterson Estate, 193 Mich App 257, 261; 483 NW2d 624 (1991). “Whether the presumption of undue influence is rebutted is a question to be resolved by the finder of fact.” Id. Here, the probate court erred by making impermissible findings of fact in the context of a motion for summary disposition in order to decide that there was no evidence of undue influence.
Almost every case I file is either partially or entirely an undue influence case. In the age of litigation over the exploitation of vulnerable adults, as far as legal theories go, undue influence is the ish. Cases that illuminate the nuanced grey edges of this complicated legal theory are always appreciated (especially those that might help my clients avoid summary).