Fielding v. Tullos, No. 09-17-00203-CV, 2018 WL 4138971 (Tex. App.—Beaumont Aug. 30, 2018, no pet.).


Beneficiary Designation on Non-Probate Assets


Decedent named Caregiver as a beneficiary on several non-probate accounts. After Decedent’s death, Independent Executor claimed that Decedent lacked the capacity to name Caregiver as the beneficiary of these accounts and that if Decedent did have capacity, he was subject to Caregiver’s undue influence. The trial court granted a Caregiver’s request for a summary judgment finding that although Caregiver was in a position to exercise undue influence, there was no evidence that she did. In addition, the court held that a true fiduciary relationship did not exist between Decedent and Caregiver which would shift the burden of proof on Caregiver to show lack of undue influence. Independent Executor appealed.


The appellate court affirmed. The court reviewed the evidence and concluded there was no genuine issue of material fact. The record had “no indication of force, intimidation, duress, persistent requests or demands, or deceit by” Caregiver. Caregiver had assisted Decedent and his predeceased wife for seventeen years. In the later years of Decedent’s life, Caregiver worked for Decedent seven days a week. They had a close relationship. For example, Decedent would spend holidays with Caregiver’s family instead of his distant relatives (Decedent had no children). An employee of the one of the institutions holding a non-probate asset testified that she had never seen Caregiver exert any influence over Decedent or Decedent had any of the traits of a vulnerable client.


Moral:  Mere opportunity to exert undue influence is insufficient to place the existence of undue influence into question. In this case, distant relatives (nieces and nephews) were upset that a long-time caregiver received over $1.5 million. To reduce the chance of litigation, the estate attorney should take steps during the planning process to prevent contests based on undue influence or lack of capacity.