Undue Influence Not Proven in Will Contest

End of life planning is very important, especially if some of those plans involve selectively making gifts to some relatives and not others. Such estate plans often result in will contests or challenges by adversely affected heirs. The recent case of In re Estate of Link, highlights such a result.

Ms. Link was a widow, and had no children. Ms. Link had several siblings, but she was especially close to her younger sister and that sister’s children. In 1989, Ms. Link asked, Mr. Layne, the nephew of her older sister for help drawing up a will as he was an attorney. Layne, said no, but referred his aunt to another attorney who drafted her will. The 1989 will split the estate equally among the four nieces and nephews of her younger sister and Layne.

Time passed, and Ms. Link began relying more and more upon Layne for advice and assistance. In 1996, Ms. Link asked Layne to draw up a general power of attorney granting him authority over Ms. Link’s financial affairs. Again, Layne said no, but referred his aunt to the same attorney to draft it. In 1998, Ms. Link asked Layne to draw up a new will for her, which would give all of her estate to Layne as opposed to splitting it up five ways. Layne again said no, and referred his aunt to the same attorney who drew up the new will as she wanted.

Over the next several years, Ms. Link’s health deteriorated and she relied more and more upon Layne, who used the power of attorney and Ms. Link’s finances to see that his aunt was taken care of properly. Eventually Ms. Link passed away and Layne presented her 1998 will to the probate court. Not surprisingly, the disinherited nieces and nephews challenged the will on several grounds. One such challenge was that Layne unduly influenced his aunt to change her 1989 will and replace it with the 1998 will, which gave everything to Layne.

After several years of litigation, the parties tried the case and the jury concluded that Ms. Link was competent when she drafted the 1998 will and that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that Layne unduly influenced his aunt’s will. In effect, the 1998 will stood and Ms. Link’s estate passed entirely to Layne, which was her apparent wish.

Decisions regarding how one’s estate are to be divided up at death are often difficult to make and presumably, Ms. Link gave great consideration to how she wanted her assets to pass upon her death. If an estate plan treats some people in the same class differently than others (e.g. some nieces as opposed to all nieces), then it is important to communicate the reasons behind this to the drafting attorney so that he or she can fully document the decision as well as give consideration to whether additional steps may be appropriate. Likewise, if someone comes along who may have motives not consistent with the best wishes of an elderly person, but then gains all the assets in a will to the exclusion of other similarly situated people, speaking with an attorney who is familiar with estate litigation is a good idea. As, unfortunately, for every good intentioned Layne out there, there are others who have ulterior motives. 

Failure to Show Testamentary Intent Defeats Estate Plan

Following the wishes set forth in the last will and testament of a decedent can be troubling for surviving heirs when multiple documents are found after death. This trouble is further compounded when various documents conflict with each other.

In the recent case of In re: Estate of Joan Uhl Pierce, the decedent (the person who died) wrote her will in 2007, which was formally witnessed and executed. In the 2007 will, Ms. Pierce gave all her assets to her children, and if her children didn’t survive her, then to she gave her assets to her grandchildren. In 2010, Ms. Pierce amended her will via a holographic codicil (i.e. a handwritten amendment, signed, but not witnessed). In her 2010 amendment, she noted that all her children except for one had moved out of state and the remaining child, became her caregiver. As such, Ms. Pierce additionally wanted to give her home to her caregiving child. However, the caregiving child died before Ms. Pierce.

In 2013, a mere handful of days before Ms. Pierce passed away, she received and filled out a set of documents from an attorney titled “Confidential Estate Planning Questionnaire”. In the questionnaire, Ms. Pierce made no mention of her grandchildren receiving any of her assets, which was contrary to the 2007 will and 2010 amendment. In other words, if the 2013 estate planning questionnaire was deemed yet another holographic will, then the grandchildren of the deceased caregiving son would not take anything under the 2013 document. However, under the 2007 will and 2010 amendment, the grandchildren would receive their father’s proportionate share of the estate plus the house.

The Court ultimately decided that the 2013 estate planning questionnaire did not evidence Ms. Pierce’s final intent. Among other reasons, the document noted that it was to be followed by a formal meeting with the attorney and that it was merely the beginning of the planning process, not the conclusion. Thus, the 2007 will and 2010 amendment controlled.

A lesson here is that as long as you’re alive, you’re free to change your post-death wishes. However, if you do so, you must follow the legal formalities and your testamentary intent must be clearly evidenced within the documents. In this case, the testimony given at trial showed that Ms. Pierce no longer wanted her one set of grandchildren to inherit her property, however, her failure to formally evidence these wishes defeated her plan and resulted in litigation.

The (Seemingly) Evil Stepmother

We've looked at cases in the past highlighting the importance of clear written plans controlling property and money after death. This is especially important in situations involving families in which not everyone gets along. The recent appellate case of In Re: Estate of Bruce Chapman Bower illustrates this point.
In Bower, Mom and Dad were married and had children. Mom and Dad created a trust whereby their children were the beneficiaries. Mom then died and Dad remarried. Now, Dad was married to Stepmother and amended the trust to include, 1) Stepmother's use of a lake house, and 2) Stepmother's receipt of a monthly payment of $2,000 provided certain conditions were met. Dad then died. Son became trustee, while Stepmother was the beneficiary.
Son and Stepmother, however, didn't see eye to eye on what "primary" use of the lake house and the conditions attached to the $2,000 per month meant. Stepmother argued she got the lake house "exclusively" and that she got the money regardless of whether or not the trust had limiting language in it. (The monthly payment issue turned on whether the language precluded payment since Stepmother was Medicare eligible.)
The appellate court focused on the express language Dad chose coupled with the ordinary understanding of the words. The court sided with Son and held that "primary" didn't mean "exclusive", thus Dad's kids could use the lake house when Stepmother wasn’t. And, the court found that the language, "The payments called for under this subparagraph…shall continue until such time as [Stepmother] dies, remarries, or is qualified to receive Medicare Benefits" plainly meant that the monthly payments were no longer owed to Stepmother since she was Medicare eligible.
Clear language is crucial in estate planning, contract drafting, and many other situations. In addition, when undertaking estate planning, it is important to understand the family dynamics so that certain future issues can be addressed with clarity.

Undue Influence and Will Contests

We've reviewed several cases which show the value of proper estate planning through the lens of post-death lawsuits. This week's case is another example. However, the facts can be read to either support the argument that the son tampered with his dad's will or that the dad truly wanted to leave an unbalanced estate to his children. In any event, the litigation was costly to the entire family.
Without getting into the lengthy, but interesting, fact pattern, the decedent, Doyle I. Dukes, had seven children from two marriages. At one point, Doyle was a successful jewelry store and rental unit owner despite only finishing fourth grade. As he aged, there was conflicting evidence that he suffered from dementia and may have been susceptible to undue influence. Most of his life, Mr. Dukes treated his children equally, but in his later years he seemingly relied more on one son, Doyle E. Dukes, than other children.
Prior to passing away in 2009, Mr. Dukes executed a will in 2007. The 2007 will left $1,000 to each of his children, but the balance of the estate passed to his one son, Doyle E. Dukes. Several of the other children challenged the will primarily arguing that it was the result of the son's undue influence. Both the trial court and the court of appeals agreed, and they invalidated the will and found that the estate passed equally to all the children.
The evidence can be presented in ways to either show that the son's actions were selfish or that the decedent truly wanted to effectively disinherit his remaining children. In the end, however, the court found that it was the son's motives that drove the drafting of the 2007 will, despite the fact that the decedent hired an attorney to draft it. The moral of this story, if you're planning on making alternative or unbalanced estate planning decisions, it's important to document those choices in conjunction with an attorney who understands the family dynamics and possible implications of such choices. Additionally, if you're an heir facing an uneven distribution with suspicion of wrongdoing by other heirs, your rights aren't necessarily foreclosed, and competent counsel can help guide you toward understanding those rights and resolving such disputes.
In re: The Estate of Doyle I. Dukes, No. E2014-01966-COA-R3-CV, (Tenn. Sept. 11, 2015).

Estate Planning Choices

The failure to carefully and deliberately plan your property distribution choices upon death can result in unnecessary expenses, heartache, and in some cases litigation. A recent appellate case showcases this. In the case of In re: Estate of Warren Elrod, the decedent (i.e. person who died) had a biological son born in 1966 from his first marriage. The first marriage ended in divorce a few years later. In 1973, the decedent remarried a woman who was already the mother of two of her own children. The decedent treated his new step-children as his own and had a strong and active relationship with both of them until the day he died, forty years later.
His relationship with his biological son, however, was not as smooth. Essentially, the decedent and the biological son had little to no contact (seemingly not by the choice of the decedent) until the 2000's. Thereafter, the relationship appeared to consist nearly exclusively of the decedent sending birthday and holiday cards with almost no reciprocity from the son.
At the time the decedent died, he had a written will which split the estate into equal thirds between the two stepchildren and the biological son. Evidence was introduced to the court that that decedent intended to remove his biological son from the will, but this step never occurred before the decedent died.
The decedent also owned an IRA at the time of his death which listed his spouse as his primary beneficiary and his "children" as the secondary beneficiaries. (An IRA with a living beneficiary does not pass via the will, but instead per the beneficiary designation.) The decedent's spouse died before him, and thus the primary beneficiary failed. The biological son claimed that he was the only "child" under the IRA and as such, should take 100% of it as the secondary beneficiary. The stepchildren disagreed.
The case touched upon numerous interesting legal issues but eventually, the court concluded that the IRA would pass to all three "children" equally (i.e. consistent with the will). Ultimately the court appears to have made the most logical decision based on the facts as presented. But, the sad part of this case is that the outcome could have been avoided with an estate plan that included a review of the decedent's property and financial account beneficiary designations. In the absence of such pre-planning, the parties were forced to spend time and money arguing their positions in court.
In re: Estate of Warren Elrod, No. E2014-02205-COA-R3-CV, (Tenn. Sep. 10, 2015).

Litigating Undue Influence Claims in an Estate

When a loved one dies, the family and friends left behind sometimes find themselves in a dispute over the decedent’s property or money. In some cases, the remaining heirs find that the property they thought the decedent owned was already given away or transferred before the decedent died. In such cases, the surviving heirs may bring claims where they assert there was “undue influence” exerted upon the decedent before he passed away in an effort to invalidate the transfer.
In a recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case, In re Estate of Harold Curtis Morrison, the decedent’s surviving brother, and only heir, faced a situation where the decedent transferred all of his real estate and personal property to the decedent’s friend/on-property-live-in-resident/caregiver. The real estate was transferred via quit claim deeds approximately ten months before the decedent died.
The case was tried to a Judge, not a jury. The Judge heard testimony from the decedent’s attorney, the decedent’s doctor, longtime friends, the person who received the property, and the surviving brother. The Court concluded that the facts established that the decedent was “stubborn, headstrong, and opinionated” and that there was no proof that the property recipient exercised dominion or control over the decedent. The Court went on to find that no fiduciary relationship existed between the decedent and the property recipient. In other words, the lifetime gifts were done as a result of the decedent’s own free will and independent judgment and not the result of a more dominant party’s undue influence. Thus, the Court denied the surviving brother’s challenge to the lifetime real estate gifts and allowed them to remain as transferred.
Litigation over estate claims are often taxing financially and emotionally and can last for years. In this case, the decedent passed away in 2012, yet the litigation continued on for the next three years. Working with an attorney who understands these tolls and the process is very important, especially at the outset of the matter.