MARCH 9, 1998 VOLUME 5, NUMBER 36
John Haynsworth was a Florida multimillionaire. He had made his fortune in Miami Beach real estate investments. He had no children, so after his wife died in 1988, his closest family were nieces and nephews.
Mr. Haynsworth did have a long-time relationship with his attorney, Ted Blum. After his wife's death, he sold his home and moved into an apartment; Mr. Blum represented him in that transaction. In February, 1993, Mr. Blum prepared a will for Mr. Haynsworth. In that will, he left most of his estate to the American Red Cross, the United Way and the Salvation Army. Mr. Blum also inserted a provision that guaranteed himself payment of 5% of Mr. Haynsworth's estate for taking care of the probate.
A few months before the will was signed, Hurricane Andrew had wreaked havoc on southern Florida. Shortly after that crisis, Mr. Haynsworth's niece Lisa Haynsworth-Jones visited him for a period of time in Miami. Immediately after the will was signed, she returned to Miami and helped her uncle purchase a new home. Apparently, Mr. Blum was unhappy that he had not been involved in the purchase of the home, and almost immediately filed a petition seeking appointment of a guardian and conservator for Mr. Haynsworth.
At a hearing in May, Mr. Haynsworth was found to be incapacitated and his niece Lisa was appointed as his guardian. Within a few weeks, however, he had hired a new attorney to prepare another will. This will, which was signed in July, substantially reduced the share of Mr. Haynsworth's estate which would go to charities, and increased the share to Lisa and other family members. No provision was made for Mr. Blum in the new will.
In November of that same year, Mr. Haynsworth signed another new will. By the end of December, he had died at the age of ninety seven.
Mr. Blum filed the February will with the probate court, and Lisa Haynsworth-Jones objected and offered both the July and November wills instead. Within a few months, Lisa withdrew her request for admission of the November will and focused solely on the July will.
At trial, the November will was ruled invalid, because Mr. Blum had unduly influenced Mr. Haynsworth. The July will, which left most of the estate to family, was admitted as Mr. Haynsworth's last valid will.
The Florida Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. The appellate court decided that, where a guardian has been appointed at the time of execution, there is a presumption that any will is invalid. The burden, according to the appellate judges, was on Lisa to show otherwise.
During the trial, Lisa had introduced the testimony of two physicians, neither of whom had evaluated Mr. Haynsworth around the time of the July will signing. She also produced one of the witnesses to the will itself, who testified that Mr. Haynsworth could carry a conversation, and that he was possibly lucid at the time. The Court of Appeals decided that her evidence was not strong enough to overcome the presumption of incapacity.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge's finding that Mr. Blum had unduly influenced Mr. Haynsworth with regard to his own fee. The judges ruled, however, that just that section of the February will could be struck, without having to find the entire document invalid. In other words, Mr. Blum would receive nothing, and the bulk of the estate would go to the charities originally selected by Mr. Haynsworth. American Red Cross v. Estate of Haynsworth, February 18, 1998.
In Arizona, the result would probably be different. The appointment of a guardian does not raise a presumption of incapacity for purposes of making a will, and the burden of showing incapacity would have been on the charities challenging the July will. Depending on their evidence, the July will might have prevailed.