Pastor, Church & Law

Undue Influence

§ 4.03

Key point 4-03. A gift to a church or minister may be challenged on the ground that the recipient unduly influenced the donor into making the gift. There are several factors the courts will consider in deciding whether or not undue influence occurred, including the age and mental health of the donor, and the presence of independent legal advice. Undue influence generally must be proven by “clear and convincing” evidence.

If the recipient of a gift unduly influenced the donor into making the gift, the donor may have the gift canceled. This rule applies both to direct gifts made during one’s lifetime and to gifts contained in documents (such as wills) which take effect at the donor’s death. Undue influence is more than persuasion or suggestion. It connotes total dominion and control over the mind of another. As one court noted, “undue influence is that influence which, by force, coercion or over-persuasion destroys the free agency” of another.46 In Matter of Soper’s Estate, 598 S.W.2d 528, 538 (Mo. 1980).

Undue influence generally must be inferred from the circumstances surrounding a gift, since it seldom can be proven directly. Circumstances commonly considered in determining whether a donor was unduly influenced in the making of a gift include the following:

  • whether the gift was the product of hasty action
  • whether the gift was concealed from others
  • whether the person or organization benefited by the gift was active in securing it
  • whether the gift was consistent or inconsistent with prior declarations and planning of the donor
  • whether the gift was reasonable rather than unnatural in view of the donor’s circumstances, attitudes, and family
  • the donor’s age, physical condition, and mental health
  • whether a confidential relationship existed between the donor and the recipient of the gift
  • whether the donor had independent advice47 In re Estate of McCauley, 415 P.2d 431 (Ariz. 1966).
  • Most courts have held that undue influence must be proven by “clear and convincing” or “clear and satisfactory” evidence. Proof by a mere preponderance of the evidence will not suffice.48 See generally 25 AM. JUR. 2D Duress and Undue Influence § 48 (1966 & Supp. 1999).However, some courts have ruled that a “presumption” of undue influence may arise when a gift is made by a church member directly to his or her minister, or when an attorney who drafts a will leaving a gift to a church is a member of the same church. This presumption is rebuttable.

    Here are some examples of cases in which the courts have canceled a gift to a church or minister on the basis of undue influence:

    Case studies

    • A 70-year-old invalid dying from cancer was visited several times a week by a pastor of her church. Three days before her death, the pastor persuaded her to execute a will leaving most of her property to him. The pastor’s personal attorney was called upon to draft the instrument. Two days later, the pastor attempted to have the donor give him additional property by a deed of gift, but by this time the donor was in a stupor and was physically unable to sign her name. She died a day later. The gift to the pastor was challenged on the ground that it was the product of undue influence. The court concluded that undue influence was established by the age and feeble mental and physical condition of the donor, the involvement of the pastor in procuring the gift to himself, the confidential “clergyman-parishioner” relationship that existed between the pastor and the donor, and the lack of any independent advice.49 In re Miller’s Estate, 60 P.2d 492 (Cal. 1936).
    • Gifts to an Episcopal rector and his church were invalidated on the basis of undue influence since the donor was a 76-year-old woman suffering from arteriosclerosis, senility, and severe loss of memory.50 Tallahassee Bank and Trust Co. v. Brooks, 200 So.2d 251 (Fla. App. 1967). See also Hensley v. Stevens, 481 P.2d 694 (Mont. 1971) (gift to minister held to be product of undue influence and fraud since minister induced gift by falsely representing that he would reconvey a portion of the property to the donor’s husband but never did).
    • The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that an assignment of property to a church was invalid since the donor lacked mental capacity and the church exerted undue influence on the donor in making the gift. An 81-year-old woman signed a legal document assigning the bulk of her estate to a church, and on the same day signed a will that named the church as her primary beneficiary. A relative later challenged the assignment on the grounds that the donor had been unduly influenced by the church in making the gifts. The state supreme court invalidated the assignment of property on the basis of undue influence. It noted that when a confidential relationship exists between a donor and a beneficiary, only “slight evidence” of undue influence is required to set aside a gift. The court also noted that when an attorney acting on behalf of a donor in preparing a will or assignment is also the primary beneficiary, “there is a presumption that undue influence existed and the beneficiary bears the burden of showing the contrary.” In this case, the attorney for the church prepared the assignment and will that the donor signed, though he never met with her personally. Accordingly, the court concluded that there was a presumption of undue influence. The court observed that the presumption of undue influence can be overcome by showing that the donor had the benefit of independent advice from some disinterested third party. However, no such independent advice was sought or received by the donor in this case. The court concluded that “it is clear that [the donor] did not receive the quality of independent advice called for by our case law. … If, as the [church’s] attorney testified, it is not unusual for him as agent of the church to be asked to draw up instruments donating or leaving gifts to the church, he should have advised the donor to seek independent advice in order to avoid conflict of interest, undue influence, and the appearance of impropriety.”51 Matter of the Estate of Carano, 868 P.2d 699 (Okla. 1994).
    • The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a provision in a deceased church member’s will leaving the bulk of her estate to her church was invalid since it was a product of the pastor’s “undue influence.” A 96-year-old woman died, leaving the bulk of her estate to the church she had attended for the last several years of her life. When the woman was 89 years of age, the pastor brought her a copy of a “will information guide” and spent several hours assisting her in cataloging her assets. The pastor later asked a church member who was an attorney to contact the woman and discuss her will’s preparation. This attorney had not represented the woman in any other legal matters. Before the attorney drafted the will he had one 15-minute telephone conversation with her in which he discussed the contents of her estate using the “will information guide” provided him by the pastor. A few weeks later the woman was taken to the attorney’s office by a church member. She reviewed her will and signed it. All of the subscribing witnesses were church members chosen by the pastor. Seven years after the will was signed the woman died. The state supreme court invalidated the gift on the basis of undue influence. The court applied a “2-prong test” to determine whether undue influence invalidates a provision in a will: First, does a “confidential relationship” exist between the deceased and another person; and second, did the stronger party in the relationship assist in the preparation of the weaker person’s will. Factors to be considered in applying this 2-prong test include (1) whether the person charged with undue influence was not a natural object of the maker’s bounty; (2) whether the stronger person was a trusted or confidential advisor or agent of the will’s maker; (3) whether the stronger person was present or active in the procurement or preparation of the will; (4) whether the will’s maker was of advanced age or impaired faculties; (5) whether independent and disinterested advice regarding the will was given to its maker. The court rejected the pastor’s claim that he could not have unduly influenced the woman since he received nothing under her will.52 Suagee v. Cook, 897 P.2d 268 (Okla. 1995).
    • A gift by a 79-year-old single woman to her church was invalidated because the evidence demonstrated that the church’s minister visited the donor daily and preyed upon her fear that other churches in the community might exceed her own in size and prosperity.53 Whitmire v. Kroelinger, 42 F.2d 699 (W.D.S.C. 1930).
    • A North Carolina court ruled that an elderly and mentally infirm woman who transferred all of her property to her church could have the transaction repudiated on the basis of undue influence. The court concluded: “The evidence supporting the woman’s claim tended to show that [at the time the will was signed] she was aged eighty seven, and her mental health had begun to fail noticeably earlier that year. In addition, the deed executed in favor of the church contravened a prior contract of sale executed in favor of [another party]. Further [the church and the attorney and two witnesses] alone procured the deed’s execution, with neither attorney nor family present on [her] behalf. … We conclude that the evidence demonstrates facts that would satisfy several of the factors bearing on undue influence.”54 Stephenson v. Warren, 525 S.E.2d 809 (N.C. App. 2000). The court concluded that persons who engage in undue influence are subject to punitive damages.
    • In most cases, however, gifts to churches have been upheld despite the claim that they were the product of undue influence. To illustrate, in one case, a court in upholding a gift to a church observed:

      If a determined old lady, who knows her own mind and without consulting her children, carries out her own wishes in that regard and buys an annuity contract, can have her wishes held for naught and the contract set aside … then no such annuity can stand in this state against such attack. The entire evidence discloses that the conduct of the officer of this church or organization was above reproach, for, even after she sought them out and asked for the investment, they did not press the matter, but gave her every opportunity to seek other advice and change her desires.55 Wixson v. Nebraska Conference Association of Seventh-Day Adventists, 241 N.W. 532 (Neb. 1932).

      Similarly, a gift of property by an 82-year-old single woman to a Catholic church to assure the saying of masses for deceased members of her family was upheld despite the claims of her nearest relatives that such was not her real intention and that she had been unduly influenced by the church without her family’s knowledge or consent. In upholding the validity of the gift, the court noted the following factors: (1) the donor’s desire to make provision for the saying of masses for her family preceded the date of the gift; (2) the donor’s will, which had been executed prior to the gift to the church, left nothing to surviving family members; (3) the donor did not conceal the gift; (4) there was no evidence that the donor was in a weakened condition of mind or body at the time of the gift; and (5) she reaffirmed the gift in subsequent letters, one of which was written five years after the day of the gift.56 Guill v. Wolpert, 218 N.W.2d 224 (Neb. 1974).

      Other courts have rejected a charge of undue influence where a donor, though 90 years of age, was well-educated and predisposed to making a gift to her church;57 Klaber v. Unity School of Christianity, 51 S.W.2d 30 (Mo. 1932).where an elderly donor had long considered making a gift to his church and was not close to his parish priest;58 Coughlin v. St. Patrick’s Church, 209 N.W. 426 (Iowa 1926).where an elderly donor was mentally competent and experienced in business affairs, and was the first to suggest making a gift to his church;59 Severson v. First Baptist Church, 208 P.2d 616 (Wash. 1949). where a donor’s lifetime gifts to her church and minister left her with ample assets for her own support, were not the result of active solicitation by her minister, and were acknowledged with satisfaction several times by the donor during her life;60 Lindley v. Lindley, 356 P.2d 455 (N.M. 1960).where a donor frequently gave to her church, was capable of making independent business decisions, and was not close to any of her relatives;61 Umbstead v. Preachers’ Aid Society, 58 N.E.2d 441 (Ind. 1944).and where an 84-year-old single woman left the bulk of her estate to a minister who was a friend and not the minister of the church she attended.62 Succession of Easterly, 563 So.2d 1006 (La. App. 1990).

      Here are some additional examples of cases in which the courts have rejected attempts by donors (or their heirs) to invalidate gifts to religious institutions on the basis of undue influence:

      • The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the validity of a will that left a large portion of an elderly widow’s estate to a Baptist university. The decedent’s surviving heirs argued that the will was invalid since the decedent lacked mental capacity at the time the will was executed. To support their claim, the heirs alleged that at the time she executed her will the decedent was in a state of grief over the loss of her husband and was manifesting eccentric behavior. In addition, the heirs argued that the decedent had never expressed an interest in the university during her lifetime. Such evidence, concluded the court, fell far short of that required to establish mental incapacity.63 Baerlocker v. Highsmith, 730 S.W.2d 237 (Ark. 1987).
      • A South Carolina court rejected a claim that an elderly decedent’s will, which left the bulk of her estate to the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), was the product of “undue influence” and accordingly invalid. The decedent executed her first will at the age of 78. This will left 10 percent of her estate to her local church, 40 percent to various relatives, and 50 percent to another charity. At the age of 87, the decedent began changing her will. The fourth and final amendment of her will, executed when she was 88 years old, placed the bulk of her estate in a charitable trust, the income from which was distributed to the LCA. The final will was challenged by a beneficiary whose share of the estate had been reduced. The beneficiary argued that the final will was invalid since it had been the product of undue influence. The court acknowledged that undue influence can invalidate a will, but it denied that the decedent’s final will had been the result of undue influence. The court observed that undue influence must be proven by the person challenging a will, and that it consists of “influence amounting to coercion destroying free agency on the part of the [decedent]” so that the will was the result of “force and fear.” The court, in rejecting the allegation of undue influence, observed that the final version of the decedent’s will had been executed “when she was in reasonably good health, and during her latter years [when] she continued to work in her yard, talk with her neighbors, do some cooking and go to a grocery store. …” In short, she still possessed sufficient independence and health to support the conclusion that “she was the ultimate decision maker.” Accordingly, the allegation of undue influence was rejected and the validity of the will upheld.64 First Citizens Bank & Trust v. Inman, 370 S.E.2d 99 (S.C. App. 1988).
      • Reducing the Risk of Undue Influence

        Many wills leaving gifts to churches and other charities have been challenged by disinherited heirs on the basis of undue influence. Church leaders who learn that an elderly or infirm person is considering leaving a portion of his or her estate to the church can reduce the possibility of undue influence by ensuring that the person obtains independent legal advice in drafting the will or trust. Ideally, the attorney should not be a member of the same church.

        Persons who would challenge a gift made to a church on the basis of undue influence must not delay in seeking redress for an unreasonable length of time, since unreasonable delay will bar any recovery.65 Nelson v. Dodge, 68 A.2d 51 (R.I. 1949).

        In summary, ministers should refrain from soliciting gifts to themselves from aged or mentally infirm church members, and should be very cautious in soliciting gifts for the church. However, gifts to a church ordinarily will be valid if a minister merely suggests and does not actively solicit a gift, the donor is mentally competent, the donor was predisposed to conveying the gift, and the donor had independent advice and assistance in implementing the gift.

        Many wills leaving substantial portions of estates to churches and other charities have been challenged by disinherited heirs on the basis of undue influence. Persons bringing such lawsuits often recognize that they have a weak case, but they sue anyway, hoping that the church will quickly settle with them in order to avoid the potential adverse publicity associated with such lawsuits. After all, what church wants to be accused publicly of coercing elderly members into making gifts to the church? If your church receives a gift under a will that is challenged on the basis of undue influence, be sure to bear in mind the following considerations:

        First, undue influence usually is very difficult to prove, particularly when the decedent was in reasonably good mental and physical health at the time the will was executed.

        Second, in many states, undue influence must be proven by “clear and convincing evidence”—a more difficult burden of proof than the ordinary “preponderance of the evidence” standard. A church that becomes aware that an elderly or infirm person is considering leaving a portion of his or her estate to the church can reduce the possibility of undue influence even further by ensuring that the person obtains the independent counsel of an attorney in drafting the will or trust. Ideally, the attorney should not be a member of the same church.

        Third, church leaders should recognize that they have a moral obligation to assist in implementing the estate plans of deceased members so long as they are satisfied that no improper influence was exercised. If a former member in fact intended that a portion of his or her estate be distributed to the church, and church leaders too quickly succumb to threats of attorneys hired by disgruntled family members, then they have violated a sacred trust.

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