A California court of appeal affirmed a ruling voiding the terms of a trust after finding that there was ample evidence to support that the decedent's wife used undue influence over him to change the trust. The court held in Lintz v. Lintz (January 14, 2014) --- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 6 Dist.), that even though a probate court had earlier used the incorrect legal standard to reach its finding, ample evidence nonetheless supported the finding of undue influence and the remedy of voiding the trust was correct.
Lois Lynne Lintz ("Lois") was the third wife of Robert Lintz ("Robert"). Lois and Robert married in 1999, divorced in 2000, and then married a second time in 2005. Robert had three children from two previous marriages, and two grandchildren. Robert, a wealthy retired real estate developer, died at age 81 in 2009. At the time Robert and Lois remarried in 2005, the terms of Robert's trust provided for his children and grandchildren upon his death. After he remarried Lois, he amended the trust for the tenth time to provide her with 50 percent of his assets, with the remaining 50 percent divided among his children and grandchildren.
In the final years before Robert's death, he amended his trust several more times, with provisions drafted by Lois's attorney at her direction, effectively making Lois the exclusive heir to Robert's estate and disinheriting his children and grandchildren. Following Robert's death, two of his children filed suit against Lois for several causes of action, including fiduciary abuse of an elder and breach of fiduciary duty. The probate court found that while Robert had capacity to execute the trust amendments, Lois was nonetheless liable for undue influence and voided all trusts and trust amendments occurring after the tenth amendment. Lois appealed, claiming the decision wrongly interfered with her marital relationship.
First, the appellate court ruled that although the probate court ultimately imposed the correct remedy, it applied the wrong legal standard to reach its ruling. The probate court applied Probate Code Section 6100.5, requiring only that a person understand the nature of the action, the nature of the property at issue, and the relationship to those affected by the will. The court explained that was an incorrect standard because Robert's trust was more complex than a mere will. Instead, the court should have applied Probate Code sections 810 through 812, requiring that Robert’s capacity be evaluated in light of the complexity of the decision in question, and his ability to appreciate the consequences of the particular act he wished to take.
There was ample evidence that Lois's actions consisted of undue influence to bring pressure directly on Robert sufficient to overcome Robert's free will, in effect amounting to coercion forcing his actions. That evidence included excessive spending by Lois of Robert's assets, Robert's repeatedly expressed spoken wishes to provide for his children and grandchildren, Lois misinforming Robert's attorneys about Robert's wishes, and Robert's expressions of fear and intimidation about exercising his free will over his assets.
Therefore, even though it applied the wrong legal standard, the court ruled that the probate court had correctly reached a finding of undue influence and correctly imposed the remedy of voiding the subsequent amendments to Robert's trust. Further, the court dismissed Lois's claims regarding interference with her marital relationship, noting that Lois's constitutional right to marry did not diminish her fiduciary responsibilities, nor shield her from liability for unlawful conduct.