When Undue Influence Won’t Overturn a Will

When Undue Influence Won’t Overturn a Will

When a person provides care or occupies a special, close relationship with another, that closeness may turn into reliance.  If a caregiver participates or has input in the making of the other person’s will, the will may be overturned on the grounds of “undue influence.”  A recent Mississippi Supreme Court decision addressed whether undue influence will invalidate a will when the influencing party gains nothing personally from the change.

David “Junior” Kimbrough passed away on January 17, 1998, leaving his entire estate to his long-time girlfriend, Mildred Washington.  Matthew Johnson was named executor of the estate in Kimbrough’s Last Will and Testament.  Johnson filed the probate of Kimbrough’s will in May 1998.   Kimbrough’s heirs filed to contest the will on August 18, 1998, and no other entries were filed during the next ten years.

Kimbrough had been a long-time guitar player and musician.  He signed music contracts and recorded albums with Fat Possum Records before his death.  Matthew Johnson was associated with Fat Possum Records and explained the assignments of contract rights and the Last Will and Testament to Kimbrough, who could barely read and write and could not otherwise understand the contracts.  Four of Kimbrough’s thirty-six children contested the will, alleging that Johnson had a “confidential relationship” with Kimbrough and unduly influenced him to leave his estate to Mildred Washington.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has identified the following seven factors to consider when determining whether a “confidential relationship” exists:  (1) whether one person has to be taken care of by others, (2) whether one person maintains a close relationship with another, (3) whether one person is provided transportation and has their medical care provided for by another, (4) whether one person maintains joint accounts with another, (5) whether one is physically or mentally weak, (6) whether one is of advanced age or poor health, and (7) whether there exists a power of attorney between the one and another.  In other words, a confidential relationship exists between two people in which one person is in a position to exercise dominant influence upon the other because of the other’s dependency on the former, arising either from weakness of mind or body or through trust.  The person who allegedly is taking advantage of the confidential relationship must have used that relationship for his personal gain or to thwart the intent of the will-maker.  Undue influence over a will-maker, while not exercised by a beneficiary under the will, may be done so through an agency or a third person.

The Court found the facts of this case did not support the existence of a confidential relationship between Kimbrough and Johnson.  Johnson was responsible only for paying Washington royalties from Kimbrough’s recording contract with Johnson’s company.  The chancellor found that there was nothing for Johnson to gain by Kimbrough leaving his estate to Washington versus leaving his estate to his children.  The trial judge also determined that the testimony overwhelmingly showed that Kimbrough, although not very literate, was very intelligent and “called his own shots.”  The trial judge noted that Kimbrough had a child with Washington, that Washington was the last woman Kimbrough lived with, and that he was on her couch the day before he died.  Testimony provided that Washington and Kimbrough had a relationship for many years.  Washington is pictured on the inside cover of his last-released album.  Johnson testified that when Kimbrough became ill, he was instructed to pay Washington any sums owed to Kimbrough by his companies, because Washington was the person who took care of Kimbrough.

Kimbrough v. Estate of Kimbrough, No. 2012-CA-02029-SCT (MS.Sup.Ct. 2014)

If you have a concern about your legal rights, remedies and obligations, contact the experienced lawyers of Courtney Elder Law Associates at 601-987-3000.