Will Maker Susceptible To Under Influence

Sufficient evidence supported a prima facie case that testator had been unduly influenced, and appellants failed to meet their burden of providing clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

Stella Fabian died on January 31, 2016. The court admitted a will dated June 20, 2014 to probate. Appellees contested this will, claiming it was invalid based on lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraud and mistake. Instead, they claimed that a will dated December 29, 1998 was decedent’s authentic will. The court held a hearing and found against appellees. On appeal, the Superior Court reversed and remanded. On rehearing, the court entered a decision that decedent was subject to undue influence of appellants. Therefore, it ordered the 2014 stricken. Appellants filed a timely notice of appeal.

The first aspect of undue influence was whether decedent suffered from a weakened intellect at the time she entered into the 2014 will. The type of weakened intellect necessary to establish undue influence did not need to amount to testamentary incapacity. In re: Clark’s Estate, 334 A.2d 628. The attorney who prepared the 2014 will, Michael Greek, was a stranger to decedent. He had not represented decedent prior to this, and appellants had initially contacted him. Attorney Greek had no way of knowing whether decedent’s mental state could have rendered her susceptible to the undue influence of third parties in the weeks or months leading up to his two meetings with decedent.  The two people who witnessed decedent’s signing the 2014 will testified that she appeared well dressed, well-groomed and communicating, but the court concluded this was irrelevant, because the fruits of undue influence might not appear until long after the influencers had played upon her wakened intellect. Both these witnesses had only met decedent once, and their observations did not have any bearing on whether decedent had been unduly influenced.

Appellees made out a prima facie case of undue influence, so the burden shifted to appellants to present clear and convincing evidence that decedent executed the will without any undue influence. Although appellants provided some examples of decedent’s behavior to show that she was functioning normally, the court found these examples were insufficient to meet their burden. Appellants provided no expert testimony regarding decedent’s mental condition during the relevant time frame. Therefore, the court concluded that the appeal should be dismissed.