Because Courts Treat Undue Influence as a Species of Fraud, Undue Influence is Subject to the Delayed Discovery Doctrine

Posted on February 13, 2018

In Flanzer v. Kaplan, 230 So. 3d 960 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2017), the Court addressed the issue of when a plaintiff must bring an undue influence claim when challenging a trust. The Florida Trust Code allows a plaintiff to challenge any portion of a trust procured by undue influence. Section 736.0406, Fla. Stat. (2017). An action, however, cannot commence until the trust becomes irrevocable either by its terms or by the settlor’s death. Section 736.0207(2), Fla. Stat. (2017).

In this case, the trust became irrevocable at its creation in 2005 by its terms. Louis Flanzer died in June 2013, and Gloria Flanzer died in March 2015.  Jan Flanzer sued in November 2015 to challenge numerous estate planning documents, including the trust.  The Appellant, Jan Flanzer, claimed that from 2001 until the death of her mother, the settlor in 2015, the Trustees maintained a fiduciary relationship with Flanzer’s mother serving as her personal accountants, attorneys, and business and financial advisors. That during this time, her mother had a diminished mental capacity, making her emotionally and mentally susceptible to the undue influence of the Trustees/Appellees. The Appellant alleged the Appellees exploited their relationship with her mother, ultimately eliminating the Appellant from her mother’s estate plan and that the trust was the result of their undue influence.  Appellant sought the revocation of the trust. The trial court dismissed the Appellant’s claim because it held the trust became irrevocable at its creation in 2005, that the applicable statute of limitations is four years from the date of its creation, and was therefore past the statute of limitations and dismissed that count with prejudice

Because the Florida Trust Code does not specify a statute of limitations in which to challenge the trust, the Court looked to chapter 95 of the Florida Statutes. Under that chapter, the statute of limitations is four years.  See, Section 95.11(3), Fla. Stat.  “[U]ndue influence claims can only fall under subsection 95.11(3)(i), ‘[a] legal or equitable action founded on fraud.’”  Appellant argued because courts treat undue influence as a species of fraud, undue influence is subject to the delayed discovery doctrine. Section 95.031(2)(a), Fla. Stat.  The Trustees challenged the application of that doctrine and emphasized the distinguishing elements between fraud and undue influence claims.  The delayed doctrine states:

“An action founded upon fraud under s. 95.11(3), including constructive fraud, must be begun within the period prescribed in this chapter, with the period running from the time the facts giving rise to the cause of action were discovered or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence, instead of running from any date prescribed elsewhere in s. 95.11(3), but in any event an action for fraud under s. 95.11(3), must be begun within 12 years after the date of the commission of the alleged fraud, regardless of the date the fraud was or should have been discovered.”

Section 95.031(2)(a), Fla. Stat. (2017).

The Second DCA found that undue influence claims and fraud claims are distinct causes of action.  The Court looked at the prepositions in the phrase “founded upon fraud” and “founded on fraud” in sections 95.031(2)(a) and 95.11(3)(i) and saw no reason why Section 95.031(2)(a) would not apply to Appellant’s claim as the Sections “plainly countenance a broader class of claims than merely actions alleging fraud in general.”  The Second DCA reversed and remanded because the Appellant’s claim was subject to the delayed discovery doctrine.

If you or anyone you know is in need of representation in actions involving Guardianship, Probate and/or Trust Disputes, or questions pertaining to such proceedings, please contact The Law Offices of Glenn M. Mednick, P.L., at (954) 315-1154 or gmednick@mednicklawgroup.com.

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