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Lewis v. Van Anda, 2007 Ga. LEXIS 845 (2007)

n 2003, Frankie Walker created an irrevocable trust. After her death, her husband, Van Anda, sought to set aside the trust and transfers into the trust, arguing they were the product of undue influence. The trust, as drafted had the effect of leaving virtually all of Frankie’s estate to her sister, Mollie Lewis.

Frankie, then age 86, married Van Anda, then age 57, in 2001, after her first husband died. Frankie had known Van Anda since the mid-1980s. Frankie and her first husband never had children, and Frankie’s first husband had expressed his desire that their farm in Ray City, Georgia and other assets be passed to Van Anda after the Walkers’ deaths.

Frankie with Van Anda in Florida until February 2003, when she returned to Alma, Georgia to live with Lewis. Although Frankie’s prior contact with Lewis was minimal during the preceding two to three years, Frankie left Van Anda because she suspected, based on claims by various of Walker’s family members, that Van Anda was having affairs with other family members and using Walker’s money to pay his personal debts. Frankie went to two different attorneys, executing two wills leaving assets to Lewis, followed by a trip to a third attorney who prepared an irrevocable trust naming Lewis as trustee and beneficiary, and a deed conveying the Ray City farm into the trust.

In May 2003, Frankie was hospitalized upon experiencing an episode of agitation and paranoia, specifically marked by her insistence that Lewis and other family members were trying to steal her money and control her. Frankie was transferred to a mental health facility for evaluation and was subsequently discharged to a nursing home, where she lived until her death in December 2003. In the months prior to her death, substantially all of Frankie’s assets – approximately $ 600,000 in various bank accounts and the farm – had been transferred into the trust.

At trial, Van Anda put up evidence that he and Frankie were happily married and that Frankie herself suspected Lewis was trying to stlea her money. A jury found that Lewis had exerted undue influence over Frankie, finding for Van Alda. After the court denied Lewis’s motions to set aside the judgment and for new trial, Lewis appealed.

Initially, the court denied those portions of Lewis’ appeal challenging the judgment on procedural grounds. Next, the Court ourt-lined the law relating to undue influence, noting that a trial court’s denial of a motion for new trial will be upheld if there is any evidence to support the verdict. The rule in Georgia is:

For undue influence to be sufficient to invalidate a [trust], it must amount to deception or force and coercion . . . so that the [grantor] is deprived of free agency and the will of another is substituted for that of the [grantor]. Smith v. Liney, 280 Ga. 600, 601 (631 SE2d 648) (2006). It is not enough to show that there was an opportunity to exert influence coupled with a substantial benefit under the trust; actual deprivation of the grantor’s free will is required. Holland v. Holland, 277 Ga. 792, 793 (2) (596 SE2d 123) (2004). Undue influence may be shown by a wide range of circumstantial evidence, as direct evidence thereof is rare. Trotman v. Forrester, 279 Ga. 844 (621 SE2d 724) (2005). A presumption of undue influence arises when it is shown that the [trust] was made at the request of a person who receives a substantial benefit, who is not a natural object of the maker’s [bounty], and who held a confidential relationship with the [grantor]. Holland, supra, at 793 (2). A confidential relationship exists where a person is so situated as to exercise a controlling influence over the will, conduct, and interest of the grantor. Further, evidence of the grantor’s weakened mental state may support a finding of undue influence, as the influence necessary to dominate a weak mind is less than that necessary to dominate a strong one.

Finding that the evidence supported the verdict, the trial court’s decision was affirmed.

Decided: November 21, 2007

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