Massachusetts Appeals Court Discusses Burden of Proof in Estate Action

When an estate document has been created and executed, courts look at the document itself to determine the will of its creator. The great preference in case law is to stay within the “four corners” of the document, but there are occasions when extra evidence is allowed to be considered to show the writer did not intend a certain result to occur in the execution. A family member or another party with legal standing can file suit, alleging that someone exerted undue influence over the creator of the will or the estate holder. Typically, the party alleging this bears the burden of proof, but the law provides exceptions to this general rule. However, there’s a separate burden of proof if one of the parties involved had a fiduciary relationship with the estate holder. In Teves vs. Costa (15-P-1094), the Appeals Court reviewed a Summary Judgment in favor of the defendants, who argued there was no proof they exerted undue influence over the estate holder.

The original action stemmed from a man who lived with his long-time companion, unmarried, for 25 years until she died in 2008.  During the last six years, he and she lived together in a Massachusetts home that is the subject of the litigation. In 1998, he appointed his partner as his attorney-in-fact and her daughter as successor. After his partner died in 2008, her daughter was added as a signatory to his bank accounts, and he lived with the daughter and her husband until a hospitalization in 2009. During this 11-year period, he was isolated from his children and extended family. When his daughter took over his care after the hospitalization in 2009, she discovered he was destitute, even though he had a pension and half a million in common stock after his retirement.

The daughter, as the trustee of his estate, filed suit against the partner’s daughter and her husband for exercising undue influence and exerting control over his bank accounts and property. The primary concern was the $500,000 from the father toward the purchase of a home worth $695,000, for which he received nothing in return. The house was in the name of his partner and the defendants. The estate holder’s daughter and trustee asserted that there was a verbal agreement between her father and the partner’s daughter and son-in-law to repay the estate for the monies provided for the home purchase. Summary judgment was granted in the defendants’ favor, with the probate judge finding there was no evidence that the defendants stood in as fiduciaries or formed a verbal agreement. The trustee appealed, stating there were triable issues.

The Appeals Court vacated the summary judgment, agreeing with the trustee that there was enough evidence for a jury to consider. In a separate probate action that was eventually consolidated into this action, the partner’s daughter submitted an affidavit sworn by the estate holder, describing a verbal agreement reached for the purchase of the home. He stated that he was supposed to be paid back in exchange for supplying the majority of the funds for the purchase of the new home after the defendants sold their other home in a different location. The appellate court felt that this statement could be considered under Massachusetts G.L. c. 233 § 65. The Appeals Court specifically found that the judge placed the burden of proof on the trustee to show undue influence, when the existence of the fiduciary relationship, created when the partner’s daughter was appointed to be the successor attorney-in-fact, shifted the burden back to the defendants. The appellate court stated that the question should have been whether or not there was a triable question that the partner’s daughter breached the duty of loyalty. When there’s a fiduciary relationship, the person acting in a fiduciary capacity has the burden to show that the transaction between the estate holder and her was advantageous to the estate holder, whose interest she was supposed to uphold. The summary judgment was vacated, and the trustee was allowed to proceed with the probate action.

The Massachusetts estate planning attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the experience you need for effective estate planning. Contact our office today at 508.822.6600 for a free, confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Appeals Court of Massachusetts Case Reveals The Difficulty People Face When Contesting a Will, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, March 3, 2016

Rear-end Collision Appellate Case Helps Illustrate Burden of Proof Considerations in Massachusetts Personal Injury Cases, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, February 3, 2016