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Rhode Island Supreme Court Issues Decision on Undue Influence in Trusts and Estate Case

People can decide to change their wills and trusts whenever they choose, but elderly parents can be especially vulnerable to undue influence, particularly near the end of their life. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently decided an estate administration case involving amendments made to a trust and partnership shortly before a mother’s death. The mother had three daughters and the suit was brought by one daughter against another daughter.

According to the court’s opinion, the mother created a trust agreement to distribute her assets upon her death, and also established a family limited partnership. The mother retained the general interest of the partnership, and two of her children retained an interest for the benefit of their children. She later gifted additional interests in the partnership to her children and grandchildren. Before the challenged amendments, the mother retained a 44.1 percent interest, the defendant daughter held 31.06 percent for herself and her children, and the plaintiff daughter had 24.84 percent for herself and her child. The mother eventually needed additional care and ended up moving to an assisted living facility.

Soon after, the mother tried to commit suicide in part because she said it was “the easiest way to give [her] house to [her children].” She was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, depression, and mild dementia. In the following months, she transferred her remaining interest in the partnership to the defendant. She also appointed the defendant as trustee and made the other daughters’ interest in the trust conditional on the transfer of interest in the partnership to defendant. The trust was then amended to give two daughters and a granddaughter $2,000, and the rest to the defendant. The defendant also deposited additional money her mother received into her children’s accounts.

After the mother’s death, the plaintiff filed the lawsuit, seeking to void the amendments and alleging that the defendant had breached her fiduciary duty as trustee. The case went to trial and the jury found that the mother lacked testamentary capacity to amend her trust. It also found that her daughter had unduly influenced her mother, causing her mother to execute the amendments and gifts. The jury further decided that the daughter breached her fiduciary duty as trustee. The jury awarded damages in the amount of $441,290. The defendant daughter requested a new trial. On appeal, the court considered in part whether there was support for the jury’s finding that the defendant unduly influenced her mother.

Under Rhode Island law, undue influence is when a dominant party’s will is substituted for the “free will and choice of the subservient party.” A fact finder generally considers the totality of the circumstances, including the subservient party’s physical and mental condition, the relationship between the parties, and the dominant party’s acts and declarations. The court found that the record supported the jury’s finding that the defendant unduly influenced her mother. It noted evidence including testimony that the mother was not able to understand the implications of her actions, the mother’s dependence on her daughter, the daughter having her mother’s financial power of attorney, and the daughter’s facilitation of all of the amendments. The mother also consistently expressed her intent to divide her estate evenly among her daughters. Accordingly, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held the jury’s verdict was supported by the evidence and that a new trial was unnecessary.

Contact a Rhode Island Estate Planning Attorney

Estate administration can be complicated and fraught with disputes among family members. If you need representation in a property dispute or transaction or in estate planning, consult a skilled estate attorney about your case. The Rhode Island estate planning attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC, represent clients in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Our firm can help clients resolve estate administration disputes, draft wills and trusts, and more. We maintain close and trusting relationships with our clients. Call us at 401-300-4055 or fill out our online form to arrange a consultation.

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