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What the rule shifting to the proponent of a will only the burden of coming forward with the evidence means is the following. First, the burden will be satisfied when the beneficiary comes forward with a reasonable explanation for his or her active role in the decedent's affairs. The precise nature of the explanation will vary depending on the facts giving rise to the presumption, and the sufficiency of the explanation to rebut the presumption will be for the county judge to determine subject to review by an appellate court. Second, when the burden is satisfied the presumption will vanish from the case and the county judge will be empowered to decide the case in accord with the greater weight of the evidence, without regard to the presumption. Third, since the facts giving rise to the presumption are themselves evidence of undue influence, those facts will remain in the case and will support a permissible inference of undue influence, depending on the credibility and weight assigned by the trial judge to the rebuttal testimony.
By her purported will, prepared and executed four days before her death, the decedent Mrs. Coketine Bray Carpenter left her entire estate to respondent Mary Redman Carpenter, her daughter, and left nothing to petitioners, her three surviving sons, and another. Respondent was active in procuring the will and kept its execution secret from the decedent's sons, but the drafting attorney questioned the decedent alone. Petitioners contested the will. The county judge ruled that the will was procured by undue influence, void, and not entitled to probate. The district court of appeal reversed, holding that there was sufficient credible evidence to rebut the presumption of undue influence raised by the county judge's finding that respondent had a confidential relationship with her mother and that she actively procured the will, and without the presumption, the evidence before the county judge was insufficient as a matter of law to support a finding of undue influence.
Was the evidence before the county judge, aside from the presumption, insufficient as a matter of law, to permit him to conclude that undue influence existed?
On appeal, the Court affirmed in part, quashed in part, and remanded. The Court agreed with the District Court of Appeal that there was sufficient evidence to raise a presumption of undue influence, that the burden of coming forward with a reasonably credible explanation shifted to respondent as proponent of the will, and that she satisfied the burden, making the presumption vanish. Since the presumption was raised, there was, contrary to the district court of appeals ruling, some evidence of undue influence. According to the Court, since the facts giving rise to the presumption were themselves evidence of undue influence, those facts will remain in the case and will support a permissible inference of undue influence, depending on the credibility and weight assigned by the trial judge to the rebuttal testimony. The Court remanded to the trial judge for determination of undue influence in accord with the greater weight of the evidence.