Undue influence occurs when a person’s free will is overpowered and replaced by the will of another. In Missouri, a finding of undue influence generally requires the person who exerted influence to have been in a position of trust, and to have caused the coercion through active conduct. Although the elements seem fairly straightforward, actually proving undue influence can be much trickier. Because undue influence is often only demonstrated through circumstantial evidence, the ensuing courtroom testimony provides for a telling tale from lawyers and hairstylists and priests.
In Nestel v. Rohach, three of the four Nestel siblings tried to remove their sister, Melissa, as the personal representative of their mother’s estate. The siblings claimed that Melissa exercised undue influence over Joanne, their mother, when Joanne made Melissa the beneficiary of several bank accounts containing substantial assets. At trial, the jury found that there was undue influence as to three of the seven disputed accounts. The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District reversed, stating that the siblings had failed to present sufficient evidence to support a finding of undue influence.
In her defense, Melissa presented evidence from Joanne’s journal, in which Joanne expressed her affection for Melissa and her dislike for the other siblings. Melissa also elicited testimony from Joanne’s attorney demonstrating Joanne’s desire to transfer the property outside of probate. The attorney stated that he saw no evidence of coercion by Melissa regarding the transactions. Additionally, several of Joanne’s friends and neighbors testified that Joanne was “a strong independent woman.”
Rather than contradict Melissa’s evidence, the siblings presented extensive evidence of the significant amount of time Joanne and Melissa spent alone together. The siblings also described Melissa’s repeated attempts to seclude Joanne from the family and from others. Finally, because Joanne had just suffered the recent death of her husband, the siblings argued that Joanne’s grief left her susceptible to undue influence.
Nonetheless, the court explained that opportunity and motive alone are not enough to prove undue influence. Thus, the siblings failed to present sufficient evidence to support a finding that the beneficiary designation was the result of undue influence, rather than Joanne’s natural affection for Melissa.