New California Case, Levin v. Winston-Levin: Probate Code §859 Undue Influence Also Requires A Finding Of Bad Faith, And Depending On The Circumstances A Finding Of Undue Influence Could Invalidate The Entire Document, Or Only A Part Thereof

In Levin v. Winston-Levin (California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Case No. G056353, filed September 13, 2019), the court made two noteworthy holdings:

1.  To recover double damages under the Cal. Probate Code §859 prong pertaining to undue influence, in addition to a finding of undue influence there must also be a finding that the undue influence was in bad faith. While one might presume that undue influence is in bad faith, as the court noted, Cal. Welfare & Institutions Code §15610.70 which defines undue influence as excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity, directs a court to consider four primary factors which are then further broken down: the vulnerability of the victim, the influencer’s apparent authority, the actions or tactics used by the influencer, and the equity of the results – thus, it is entirely possible that a court might find that there was undue influence but no bad faith by the influencer.

I also note that there are very few appellate decisions pertaining to Cal. Probate Code §850, et al., which is surprising in light of the somewhat frequency that §850 is pleaded. It is my view that §850, §859, and the other sections relating thereto, are not particularly well drafted which can lead to confusion about applicability in situations that are on the fringe.

2.  It is the general rule that if the whole document (in this case a will) is the result of the presence of undue influence, the will is totally invalidated, but that if only a part of the will was procured by undue influence, that part may be rejected as void, but the remainder which is the outcome of the testator’s free will remains valid if it is not inconsistent with and can be separated from the part that is invalid. In Levin the court also compared the result if the entire will was invalidated or with the result if only a part of the will was invalidated, and compared those results with what was established about the decedent’s overall historical estate planning wishes and intentions.

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Remember, every case and situation is different. It is important to obtain and evaluate all of the evidence that is available, and to apply that evidence to the applicable standards and laws. You do need to consult with an attorney and other professionals about your particular situation. This post is not a solicitation for legal or other services inside of or outside of California, and, of course, this post only is a summary of information that changes from time to time, and does not apply to any particular situation or to your specific situation. So . . . you cannot rely on this post for your situation or as legal or other professional advice or representation.

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Best to you, David Tate, Esq. (and inactive California CPA) – practicing in California only.

I am also the Chair of the Business Law Section of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

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Upcoming Presentations – (1) Probate Court Litigation; (2) Elder Abuse and Protection

Upcoming presentations:

(1) Probate Court litigation, for a group of estate planning attorneys, caregivers and fiduciaries, March 26, 2015.

(2) Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse and Protection, for the Riverside estate planning bar, April 16, 2015.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco and California)