Wills Usually Are Valid, and Not All Family Influence is “Undue”

JUNE 23, 2003 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 51

Occasionally a successful and colorful will contest is profiled in Elder Law Issues. EL Issues reported in 1996 that Dorothy Killen’s will was deemed invalid in an Arizona court due to Ms. Killen’s “’insane delusions’” about her truly kind relatives she believed to be Mafia killers. (May 27, 1996) And, last year EL Issues described how the Mississippi attorney who prepared “Doc” Evans’ will could offer no testimony about his client’s wishes or capacity since the attorney had never met his client. “Doc” Evans’ will was held to be invalid because it appeared that he was unduly influenced by a friend involved in his business affairs. (Dec. 2, 2002)

The Wisconsin will contest of Horlacher v. Drexler is far more typical of the majority of will contests — it was unsuccessful and fueled by dark family dysfunction.

Zoura Drexler of Walworth County, Wisconsin, properly executed a will that left her entire estate to one of her children and specifically excluded her only other child. The trial court found that Mrs. Drexler had mental capacity and that she had not been subjected to undue influence when she signed the will.

Barbara Horlacher, the excluded child, appealed the trial court’s ruling regarding her mother’s capacity. Mrs. Drexler’s physicians, the attorney who drafted her will, a neighbor and her cleaning lady had all testified that Mrs. Drexler was competent to sign her will.

The only evidence that Barbara presented at trial was the testimony of a medical expert who reviewed the medical records but who had never examined, treated or met Mrs. Drexler. Barbara also challenged the trial court’s finding that Albert, the son who inherited the estate, had not exercised undue influence over his mother. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s finding that although Albert had a “confidential relationship” with his mother based on the fact that he was named as agent in her financial power of attorney, he used the power “very, very carefully, very scrupulously, very infrequently and for very minor matters.” Thus, no suspicious circumstances surrounded the confidential relationship between Albert and his mother. Although Barbara attempted to introduce into evidence Albert’s psychiatric treatment records, this evidence was deemed inadmissible for lack of relevance. Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District II, May 7, 2003.

Horlacher v. Drexler reminds us that family members influence each other frequently, and that not all influence is undue or “overpowering.” This scenario likely would have led to the same result in Arizona and most other states.

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