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Unfairness and Favoritism Do Not Equal Undue Influence


Two fairly recent Tennessee undue influence cases prove a point:  To win an undue influence case, the plaintiff (or contestant if it is a will contest) must prove more than mere unfairness or favoritism.

Both cases involved alleged undue influence with respect to deeds for land.  In the first case, Bunch v. Bunch, a mother owned 35 acres of land. While the mother was alive, she deeded about half of the acreage to her daughter. At her death, the other half of her land passed to her daughter and son equally.

After the mother passed away, the daughter brought a partition action to have the land which was left to her and her brother jointly sold and the proceeds divided.  The son filed a counterclaim against the daughter, his sister, in which he alleged that the deed wherein his mother transferred half of her land to her daughter was the result of the undue influence of the daughter.

The evidence at trial was that mother signed the quitclaim deed transferring half of her real property to her daughter in 1994. The evidence was that, in 1994, the mother was not able to drive, and that her daughter had to take her to the grocery store and to her doctors’ appointments. Other than needing a lift from time to time from the daughter, the mother was otherwise very independent and able to take care of her own needs.

At trial, the daughter testified that the mother did not care for her son’s wife and did not want her to have her land.  A friend of the mother’s also testified that the mother was “sharp as a tack.”

The trial court, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, held that the son had failed to prove that a confidential relationship existed between the daughter and the mother and that there was no undue influence.  In Tennessee, you cannot prove undue influence without proving a confidential relationship.

In the second case, Austin v. Wilds, a mother had three daughters and two sons.  Before she died, the mother deeded her real estate to her sons.  The daughters brought an undue influence case against their brothers after their mother’s death.

There was proof at trial of some suspicious circumstances surrounding the deeds to the sons.  The mother’s transferring of the real estate to her sons was inconsistent with the terms of her will that was signed the same day the deeds to her sons were signed.  As well, there was no evidence that the sons gave mother anything for the land when she signed the deeds. There was apparently some proof by the sons that they had made undocumented loans to their mother in previous years. Furthermore, the sisters were unaware of the deeds to their brothers until after their mother had died.

In the Wilds case, the trial court found that there was no evidence that a confidential relationship existed between the sons and their mother.  So, there could be no undue influence.  The court of appeals affirmed the trial court.

The above cases highlight two important aspects of undue influence cases. First, family relationships, like those of children and parents, are not necessarily confidential relationships. They may be, but just because a child helps a parent in certain ways does not mean that a legal confidential relationship exists.  A confidential relationship requires more than just trust and confidence. It requires some element of dominion and control of one party over another such that the dominating party can force his or her will on the weaker party.

The second point illustrated by the above two cases is that the law is not concerned with the fairness, or lack thereof, with which a parent treats their children.  While unfairness helps an undue influence case, sometimes immensely, a successful undue influence case must be built on more than unfairness or favoritism.