A recent case from Connecticut, Tyler v. Tyler, involved a claim to modify a trust based on undue influence. Few details are provided in the opinion about the requested modification but it is a curious claim. If undue influence is exerted over the grantor, then isn’t the contested trust or amendment invalid? Why or how should a trust that is the product of undue influence be modified to reflect the true intent of the grantor?
The appellate court reversed a trial court’s entry of summary judgment that had tossed the undue influence claim, finding instead that there were genuine issues of material fact with respect to each element of an undue influence claim under Connecticut law.
1. A person who is subject to influence. Among the evidence at summary judgment was an affidavit recounting specific examples of the settlor’s state of mind during the relevant time period. This was sufficient circumstantial evidence to send the question to a jury.
2. Opportunity to exert undue influence. At summary judgment there were affidavits discussing the alleged undue influencer’s frequent contact with the settlor through the relevant time period. This was sufficient evidence to support a finding of opportunity to influence.
3. Disposition to exert undue influence. The appellate court did not discuss the evidence in support of this element other than to note that the court determined that a genuine issue existed as to whether there was a disposition to exert undue influence.
4. Result indicating undue influence. A “stark difference” between the settlor’s current will and trust and how her estate was previously to be distributed and the distribution scheme at the time of her death constituted sufficient evidence of a result indicating undue influence.
None of this meant that a jury would be persuaded by such evidence, only that – given the evidence – a jury must resolve the conflicting evidence, determine witness credibility, and decide whether to accept some, all, or none of the testimony.
Planners should take notice of the fourth element – result indicating undue influence. When planners prepare documents that make significant changes in terms of how assets will be distributed, they may want to consider taking extra precautions to protect their clients’ distribution scheme from an undue influence challenge.