Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Thrills With Wills – When is a Will “Unduly Influenced”?
To be valid a will must satisfy certain requirements. One of those requirements is that the will is the product of the decedent’s intent. No one else can be allowed to unduly influence the decedent’s intent.
In ag settings, challenges to wills sometimes arise. The battles frequently involve the disposition of farmland that has been held in the family for many years or perhaps generations. As a result, tensions and emotions run high because the future of the family farm may be at stake. But, what does “undue influence” mean? In what situations may it be present?
Will challenges and undue influence – that’s the topic of today’s post.
Basic Will Requirements
Every state has statutory requirements that a will must satisfy in order to be recognized as valid in that particular jurisdiction. For example, in all jurisdictions, a person making a will must be of sound mind; generally must know the extent and nature of their property; must know who would be the natural recipients of the assets; must know who their relatives are; and must know who is to receive the property passing under the will. A testator lacking these traits is deemed to not have testamentary capacity and is not competent to make a will. These persons are more susceptible to being influenced by family members and others desirous of increasing their share of the estate of the decedent-to-be. If that influence rises to the level of being “undue,” the will resulting from such influence will not be validated.
Testamentary Capacity and Undue Influence
Cases involving will challenges are common where the testator is borderline competent or is susceptible to influence by others. However, the fact that the testator was old or in poor health does not, absent other evidence, give rise to a presumption that the testator lacked testamentary capacity or was subject to undue influence. For example, in a 2008 Wyoming case, Lasen v. Andersen, et al., 187 P.3d 857 (Wyo. 2008), the decedent’s daughter and her husband sued to quiet title to the decedent’s farm. Other family members asserted various defenses and also claimed an interest in the farm. A bank was also involved in the litigation. The trial court ruled against the daughter and granted the bank’s counterclaim. The trial court determined that the daughter and her husband had unduly influenced the decedent by continually pressing the decedent to change his will in their favor. The trial court also determined that the daughter and her husband had improperly pressured the decedent to change his power-of-attorney and execute the deed to the farm at issue in the case. The appellate court agreed, noting that the daughter was the party that executed the second deed involving the farm and that her husband did not obviate the first deed that had been executed and delivered.
But, undue influence was not established in In re Estate of Rutland, 24 So. 3d 347 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). In this case, the court held that the trial court improperly set aside the decedent’s 2002 will which devised an 88-acre farm. The court determined that the decedent had testamentary capacity based on the evidence presented and that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of undue influence and there was no abuse of a confidential relationship. If a confidential relationship had been present, a presumption of undue influence would have arisen.
In a 1993 Kansas case, In re Estate of Bennett, 19 Kan. App. 2d 154, 865 P.2d 1062 (1993), the court held that a person challenging the will must establish undue influence by clear and convincing proof and that the decedent possessed testamentary capacity despite being unable to comprehend the purchasing power of her estate. The surviving widow received approximately $50 million from her husband’s estate after they had lived as near paupers for many years. She changed her will after inheriting the vast sum and the disaffected family members sued on the basis that the subsequent will was the product of undue influence. It was not.
Recent case. In In re Estate of Caldwell, No. E2017-02297-COA-R3-CV, 2019 Tenn. App. LEXIS 114 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 7, 2019), the decedent executed a will in 1999 that named the plaintiff, his son, as a devisee of his farm along with his nephew. At the time the will was executed, the plaintiff and nephew lived on the farm. Approximately nine years later the defendant, the decedent’s daughter, began to reestablish a relationship with the decedent and the plaintiff. The defendant did not learn that the decedent was her biological father until she was 35 years old and that she was a half-sister of the plaintiff by virtue of having the same father – the decedent.
In 2012 the decedent suffered a stroke that slowed his speech and resulted in limited mobility in one arm. The plaintiff took care of the decedent during the evenings and farmed during the day. The defendant often prepared meals and cleaned for the decedent. In November of 2012 the decedent executed a second will. The 2012 will revoked the 1999 will and devised the farm to the defendant. The 2012 will also named the defendant the executor of the estate. The defendant would drive the decedent to the attorney’s office but did not stay for the meetings. The attorney noted that the decedent spoke slower, but had no issue expressing his intent. The decedent wished to keep the property in the family and wanted the defendant and nephew to always have a place to live. The decedent also desired to make amends with the defendant for not playing a role in the first 35 years of her life. The 2012 will was properly witnessed and executed in late November. In January of 2013 the decedent quitclaim deeded the farm to the defendant. Again, at this time the attorney did not believe that the decedent had any mental capacity issues.
The decedent died in 2015 and the plaintiff submitted the 1999 will to probate. The defendant submitted the 2012 will to probate, and the plaintiff responded by bringing legal action for conversion; fraud; misrepresentation and deceit; unjust enrichment; and breach of fiduciary duty. The plaintiff sought punitive damages and injunctive relief that would prevent the defendant from taking any action against the estate. After a three-day bench trial, the trial court determined that the decedent had the requisite testamentary capacity and that the 2012 will was not a product of undue influence.
On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court found that the evidence showed that decedent was of sound mind and had testamentary capacity at the time the 2012 will was executed – he knew what property he owned and understood how he wanted to dispose of it at his death. On the plaintiff’s undue influence claim, the appellate court determined that a confidential relationship did not exist between the defendant and the decedent based on a clear and convincing standard. As such, undue influence would not be presumed and the evidence demonstrated that the decedent received independent advice and was not unduly influenced in executing the 2012 will.
Family fights over the family farm are never a good thing. Sometimes the matter may involve claims of undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity to execute a will that is the linchpin of the estate plan. Care should be taken to avoid situations that can give rise to such claims.