MAY 27, 1996 VOLUME 3, NUMBER 48
It is notoriously difficult to prove a Will invalid under Arizona law. Contestants have the burden of proving that the decedent either did not understand what he or she was doing, or else was unduly influenced by someone (usually the beneficiary of the Will) to execute the Will. In nearly every case, however, the Courts have ultimately upheld the validity of a properly executed Will, regardless of the circumstances surrounding its preparation.
In 1988, Phoenix resident Dorothy Killen signed a new Will. Her nephew Marion McCannon was visiting from Missouri, and shortly after his arrival she decided she wanted to make some changes.
Mr. McCannon took his aunt for a drive, looking for a lawyer to prepare her new Will. Apparently, the two simply drove around her Phoenix neighborhood, stopping at lawyers’ offices; on the third try, they found an attorney available to talk to Ms. Killen.
Attorney Frank Collins talked to Ms. Killen for over an hour, then prepared the Will she requested. The next day, Mr. McCannon and his wife took Ms. Killen back to Collins’ office to sign the Will, and the lawyer summoned witnesses from the office next door. Neither Collins nor the witnesses had ever had any prior dealings with McCannon or Killen, and the lawyers’ conversations with Ms. Killen were outside the presence of Mr. and Mrs. McCannon.
The new Will signed by Ms. Killen left most of her estate to Mr. McCannon, after providing for a small trust for her sister. Ms. Killen left only one dollar each to three other nieces and nephews with whom she had previously been close.
Five years later, after Ms. Killen’s death, McCannon submitted her 1988 Will to probate in Maricopa County. The three disinherited nieces and nephews objected, arguing that the Will was the product of Ms. Killen’s mental illness and resulting “insane delusions.”
At trial, the contestants produced the testimony of a psychiatrist who had evaluated Ms. Killen just eight days before she signed her Will. At that time, Dr. Vinod Patel diagnosed her as suffering from a delusional paranoid disorder, evidenced by her belief that her nephews and niece lived in her attic, “sprinkled chemicals and parasites down on her, put put her to sleep and then pulled a tooth out and cut her arms and hands with glass, were in the Mafia, and were trying to kill her so they could take her property.” In fact, her nephews and niece were providing good care for her.
Ms. Killen’s mental illness had caused her to have delusions about others as well. Prior to her husband’s death in 1985, she had firmly believed that he, too, was “in the mob” as well as trying to poison her food. Furthermore, another psychiatrist testified that her condition had continued until his evaluation of her in late 1989, almost two years after she signed her Will.
In order for a Will to be valid, the signer must be able to understand the nature and purpose of the Will, recognize relatives and others who might benefit from the estate, and have some general understanding of the nature and extent of her assets. Ms. Killen met all these tests, but her Will was nonetheless invalid. The court ruled that her paranoid delusions so interfered with her ability to perceive the true nature of her relatives that she lacked capacity to make a Will, and the Court of Appeals agreed. Consequently, her estate was divided into equal shares among all her nieces and nephews. M.I.Marshall & Isley Trust v. McCannon, AZ. Ct. App., April 18, 1996.