The great majority of the time, individuals involved in the probate process behave diligently and honorably, and any mistakes are innocent and readily resolved. Unfortunately, from time to time, people behave dishonorably with the intention of enriching themselves. When another interested party becomes aware of fraudulent behavior in probate court, what recourse do they have?
Probate after a death in Michigan is intended to give effect to the wishes of the deceased, to protect the interests of beneficiaries and other interested parties, and of course, to follow the requirements of the law. Fraudulent misrepresentation by an heir or a personal representative subverts those purposes.
What is Fraudulent Misrepresentation?
A fraudulent misrepresentation is a statement made with the intention to induce someone else to do something. In the probate context, a common example is fraudulently persuading someone to make or change a will.
In order to prove the fraud, the person alleging fraud must prove certain elements:
- The perpetrator of the fraud made a misrepresentation of fact that was material to the transaction. For instance, a person trying to get an elderly grandparent to change their will might falsely state, “Your other grandchild said she wished you were dead so she could get all your money.” Such a statement might make the grandparent want to change their estate plan. Saying that the other grandchild wore red shoes when she was really wearing blue shoes might be a misrepresentation of fact, but it is immaterial to the situation.
- The perpetrator of the fraud knew the statement was false.
- The perpetration of the fraud made the misrepresentation of fact with the intention of persuading the hearer to take a certain action, e.g. change their will.
- The victim of the fraud relied on the misrepresentation.
- Absent the misrepresentation, the victim of the fraud would not have taken the action. In the example above, the grandparent would not have disinherited the other grandchild had they not been told, and relied on, the lie about what the grandchild allegedly said.
Under some circumstances, a speaker can be held liable for a statement they did not know was false (innocent misrepresentation) but which meets all the other elements of fraudulent misrepresentation.
People sometimes confuse fraudulent inducement of a will with undue influence. While the two may have the same goal (getting someone to change their estate plan), the two claims have different elements. However, both undue influence and fraudulent misrepresentation may both be present in the same case.
How Do You Prove Fraudulent Misrepresentation?
Fraudulent misrepresentation in a probate case is a civil, not a criminal matter. That means that the consequences are financial in nature; the perpetrator is not convicted of a crime and does not go to jail. It also means that the burden of proof is lower: clear and convincing evidence in a civil case, rather than the criminal burden of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Just because the burden of proof is lower in a civil case, however, does not mean that it is easy to meet. It is still quite a challenge to successfully mount a claim for fraudulent misrepresentation in probate court. Someone intending to commit a fraud typically doesn’t do so where there are witnesses. It may be difficult even to prove the factual elements of the claim, such as that a false statement was made.
It is even more difficult to prove other elements of the claim, such as whether the perpetrator of the fraud knew the statement was false, or that they intended their statement to induce a certain action. Litigation of these claims often takes place after the victim of the fraud—the person making the estate plan—has died. Accordingly, the victim cannot testify as to the effect of the perpetrator’s words on them, or what made them decide to change their will or trust.
Often, the elements of fraudulent misrepresentation in probate court can only be proven by circumstantial evidence. Such evidence might show, for example, that a testator made a new will only six months after making the previous one, and that it was made the day she was visited by the grandchild alleged to have made the false statement.
What Should You Do If You Suspect Fraudulent Misrepresentation in a Probate Case?
If you suspect fraudulent misrepresentation in probate court, or any other type of fraud in a probate case, you should act promptly. Contact an experienced Michigan probate litigation attorney to discuss your options. (Some probate attorneys assist with the administration of deceased persons’ estates, but do not litigate probate disputes.)
In your consultation with the attorney, you can discuss the circumstances of your case, including the reason you believe a fraud was perpetrated. The attorney can advise you as to whether it is worthwhile to pursue a claim, and how best to support the allegations you are making. If you have questions about fraud in Michigan probate matters, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule an appointment.