Will Upheld Despite Conspiracy Claim Against Bank and Family

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997 VOLUME 5, NUMBER 12

Last year, Elder Law Issues reported on the saga of Florida millionaire Evelyn Gruber (see Volume 4, Issue 11, Sept. 16, 1996). As we told you then, Evelyn Gruber had executed a new will and power of attorney a few months before her death, and her step-daughter Estelle challenged her mental capacity to sign the documents. After trial, the Florida court found that the will was invalid, and that Ms. Gruber was incompetent to make gifts to her nephew and sister. More unusually, the court decided that a local bank was involved in the victimization of Ms. Gruber, and entered judgment against the bank for over $6 million.

In our earlier report, we predicted that the case was headed to the Florida appellate courts. Last week the Florida Court of Appeals released its decision, and cast the facts in a completely different light.

As it turns out, Evelyn Gruber executed a number of wills and trusts in the last three years of her life. The first of these, executed shortly before the death of her husband Jacob, was prepared by her step-daughter Evelyn (who, as it turns out, is a probate attorney in Miami) and provided that if Jacob died before her, most of Ms. Gruber’s estate would pass to Evelyn. After Jacob Gruber’s death, Ms. Gruber began to reconsider her intentions on a regular basis.

A week after Jacob Gruber’s death, Mrs. Gruber visited another estate planning attorney near her home. She told that attorney she wished to completely disinherit her step-daughter, and a will was prepared and signed.

Six weeks later, Estelle (the step-daughter) learned of the will disinheriting her. Acting as Ms. Gruber’s attorney, she requested that the original of that document be sent to her, and she prepared another will for Ms. Gruber to sign. In this version, Ms. Gruber left 40% of her estate to Estelle, and the balance to her own family.

Within a month, Ms. Gruber was signing another new will, this one prepared by an attorney at the request of her nephew. The attorney acknowledged that he never met Ms. Gruber, but that he relied on the nephew’s representations about her wishes. In this will, step-daughter Estelle was to receive a piano and nothing else.

It took Estelle nearly six months to learn of this will, but then she prepared yet another will for Ms. Gruber. In this version, as before, 40% of the estate would go to Estelle.

Another six months passed before Ms. Gruber executed a new will. This time she visited a new lawyer, who suggested that she sign a living trust. The trust and will she finally signed left $100,000 to Estelle and $25,000 to each of Estelle’s children, but the balance to her brother, sister and nephew.

As it turned out, the trust and will were the last ones signed by Ms. Gruber. After her death, Estelle claimed that all of them were invalid, except for the one signed prior to Ms. Gruber’s husband’s death. As we reported last year, the trial court agreed, and found that the nephew, sister and bank had engaged in a conspiracy to victimize Ms. Gruber.

The Florida Court of Appeals strongly disagreed. The court noted that even Estelle seemed to think that Ms. Gruber was competent to sign various documents benefiting Estelle. Saying that “we are compelled to respect the decedent’s last wishes” in the absence of substantial evidence of incapacity or undue influence, the appellate court reversed the trial judge’s findings and order.Raimi v. Furlong, September 17, 1997.

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