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Lilly v. Hutchins - 355 So. 2d 212 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1978)

Rule:

Where a presumption of undue influence arises, the burden placed upon the donee is only that of coming 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 trial judge to determine subject to review by an appellate court. When that burden is satisfied, the presumption will vanish from the case and the trial judge will be empowered to decide the case in accordance with the greater weight of the evidence without regard to the presumption. 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 rebuttal testimony.

Facts:

Decedent Hutchins was approximately 90 years of age, in poor health, and unable to care for himself. Appellant Frances Lilly was employed as a professional homemaker by a nonprofit agency, and her services were made available to Hutchins at no charge to him. Pursuant to her employment, Lilly spent a few hours each week providing homemaker and personal services to Hutchins. In addition to those hours, Lilly would return to Hutchins' house every week day after work to make certain that he had dinner, and would also spend her weekend time with him, preparing his meals. Additionally, Lilly would run errands for Hutchins, buy groceries, deposit checks, and sometimes prepare checks for Hutchins' signature. At Christmastime, Hutchins gave appellant Lilly the sum of $13,000, which Lilly used to purchase and improve a piece of real property. The policy of her employer prohibited her from accepting such a gift and, when the gift was discovered, Lilly was fired. Nevertheless, Lilly continued to perform full-time domestic and personal services for Hutchins until surgery required that she stop work. Hutchins died about nine months later.

In this suit, Hutchins' son, Richard, as personal representative of Hutchins' estate, sought to impress a constructive trust on the real property so acquired by Lilly on the ground that the property was purchased with the proceeds of a gift obtained by the exertion of undue influence on Hutchins by Lilly. After receiving evidence on behalf of both parties, the trial judge entered a final judgment finding that undue influence existed and imposing a constructive trust. Lilly appealed.

Issue:

Did the caretaker Lilly provide sufficient evidence to overcome the allegation of undue influence?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court reversed the ruling of the trial court, holding that Lilly provided a sufficient explanation for her active role in decedent's affairs, which rebutted the presumption of undue influence. The overwhelming weight of evidence showed the gift was a free and voluntary act. Lilly testified, without contradiction, that she provided domestic services free of charge to the elderly donor who needed assistance and that they became friends. There was no indication that Lilly participated in obtaining the checks representing the gift in question. Decedent donor's intent to make the gift was corroborated by other witnesses and the donor's written statement affirming the gift.

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