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Court Sets the Bar Very High

Will contestsA recent case in Ohio demonstrates the very high threshold that must be met to establish that a decedent was unduly influenced or lacked testamentary capacity.

In this case, the person contesting the will—a granddaughter of the decedent—was written out of the decedent’s estate plan in a series of wills executed over a period of five years. In turn, the proponents were incrementally given a larger share of the estate. The granddaughter claimed that her grandfather was unduly influenced and lacked testamentary capacity at the time that he executed his last will.

However, to refute her claim, the other relatives gave the court affidavits of three disinterested witnesses who were with the 96-year-old decedent, when he signed the will. All of these individuals said they saw no indication of lack of capacity, susceptibility to undue influence or actual coercion or duress. One said he was “an engaging elderly man.”

To invalidate a will, undue influence “must so overpower and subjugate the mind of the testator as to destroy his free agency and make him express the will of another rather than his own, and the mere presence of influence is not sufficient,” the Court wrote. Further, proof of undue influence requires: (1) a susceptible testator; (2) another's opportunity to exert influence on the testator; (3) the fact of improper influence exerted or attempted; and (4) a result showing the effect of such influence.

In response to the three affidavits, the contesting granddaughter submitted her own affidavit describing her relationship with the decedent, alleging that the decedent said he had no memory of executing a prior will and asserting that the decedent had requested that she contact an attorney to change the will.

The Supreme Court wrote that testamentary capacity exists when the testator has sufficient mind to (1) understand the nature of the business in which he is engaged; (2) comprehend generally the nature and extent of the property which constitutes his estate; (3) hold in his mind the names and identity of those who have natural claims on his bounty; and (4) appreciate his relation to the members of his family.

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and the Court of Appeals, both of which found that the granddaughter’s self-serving affidavit wasn’t enough to overcome the presumption of validity of the will and the three affidavits of those who observed the testator on the date of execution of the will.

Summary judgment was granted for the other family members and the granddaughter was out of luck.

Reference: Supreme Court of Ohio (May 24, 2017) “Young v. Bellamy”

 

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