DECEMBER 28 , 2009 VOLUME 16, NUMBER 66
Contrary to public perceptions, will contests are actually rare. In fact, few wills are written in such a way that anyone would benefit from a contest — most wills leave property to the same people who would inherit if there was no will. When there is a will contest, however, the two most common grounds are allegations of (1) lack of testamentary capacity, or (2) undue influence exerted by someone. A recent Texas case highlights the differences between those two allegations.
Evelyn Marie Reno died at age 81. She had been married twice, and left three children from her first marriage and one daughter from the second. The youngest child, Jan LeGrand, did not get along well with her half-siblings. Relationships between Ms. Reno and the three children from her first marriage were also strained — at least partially because two of them had initiated a guardianship proceeding (which was later dismissed) against their mother.
Ms. Reno spent the last year of her life in a nursing home. Ms. LeGrand visited her regularly, paid all her bills, and kept her location a secret from her half-siblings. At some point in the year before she died, Ms. Reno asked her daughter to help her prepare a new will disinheriting her other three children and leaving her entire estate to Ms. LeGrand.
The will was prepared (by Ms. LeGrand), and signed in Ms. Reno’s nursing home room. The witnesses were a hospice worker and chaplain, and the notary public was a nursing home employee. Ms. LeGrand was asked to leave the room while the three non-family members discussed the will and watched her sign it.
After Ms. Reno’s death the will was filed with the probate court by Ms. LeGrand. The three half-siblings proposed an earlier will, which left most of the estate to the four children equally.
The Probate Court ruled that Ms. Reno lacked testamentary capacity at the time the last will was signed, and that she was subjected to undue influence by her daughter. The earlier will (and a codicil) were instead admitted to probate.
The Texas Court of Appeals analyzed the findings of the Probate Court, and modified the basis for its findings — while not changing the result. The evidence, according to the appellate court, showed that Ms. Reno DID have testamentary capacity. Though she was often confused, the two witnesses and the notary agreed that the will was signed on a good day. Evidence of confusion and occasional disorientation on days before and after the will signing was not enough to overcome the testimony that she knew what she was signing, who her children were and what she intended to do at the time she signed the will.
The appeals judges agreed with the Probate Court, however, on the subject of undue influence. A key part of the evidence considered by the Court of Appeals: the fact that the will was actually prepared by Ms. LeGrand. As the Court wrote: “the fact that LeGrand personally prepared teh will without the intervention of an atotrney or other third party is significant.”
Also important to the court’s analysis: Ms. LeGrand had sole access to Ms. Reno for more than a year (during which time their mother’s whereabouts were not shared with the other three children). During that time, noted the Court of Appeals, Ms. Reno was completely dependent on Ms. LeGrand for bill-paying, care management and personal contact.
A more subtle distinction is drawn by the appellate judges with regard to Ms. Reno’s declining mental status. Though her condition at the moment of signing the will did not support the allegations of lack of testamentary capacity, her growing confusion and periodic mental weakness made her susceptible to undue influence.
Finally, the Court of Appeals notes that the will prepared by Ms. LeGrand for her mother was a complete shift from her prior wills. In each of those she made specific bequests to her four children and thirteen grandchildren, plus hospitals, her church and her pastor. The last will, however, left everything to one daughter — and this significant change in her dispositive plan was yet another indication of undue influence.
Though family members often confuse the concepts of testamentary capacity and undue influence, the legal analysis of the two different approaches to will contests is well-developed. It is also important to note that not every attempt to talk someone into making a new will is automatically subject to challenge. As the Reno court opined, in somewhat dry legalistic language: “One may request, importune, or entreat another to create a favorable dispositive instrument, but unless th eimportunities or entreaties are shown to be so excessive as to subver the will of the maker, they will not taint the validity of the instrument.”
The difference between “lack of testamentary capacity” and “undue influence” is legalistic, to be sure, but it is more than just academic. Interestingly, the Texas Court of Appeals noted that there is a difference in the burden of proof borne by the parties in the two different kinds of cases. In a case alleging lack of testamentary capacity the proponent of the will has the burden of proving that the testator understood what she was doing. In an allegation of undue influence, the challenger carries the burden of proof.
That means that each side in Ms. Reno’s case met their burden of proof. That is, Ms. LeGrand showed that her mother understood what she was doing, but the other three children demonstrated that Ms. LeGrand unduly influenced their mother. Estate of Reno, December 18, 2009.