Patient With Dementia May Have Authored Valid Will

NOVEMBER 7, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 38
A woman has been diagnosed as suffering from dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, and she resides in an assisted living facility. She has short-term memory loss, is frequently forgetful and has difficulty with tasks like playing cards and operating her television set. Can she sign a new will?

That is the legal question posed by Clara Marsh’s will, which she wrote out in longhand and signed in 2006. Ms. Marsh died two years later, and her son and daughter ended up in a legal battle over whether the will was valid.

To be more precise, Ms. Marsh’s will actually presents two related but independent legal questions. First: was she competent to sign the will on the day she did? Second: if she was competent, did her son and daughter-in-law exert undue influence on her in connection with the new will?

A brief background is in order. Ms. Marsh had a 1996 will that left everything equally to her two children. When she moved into a condominium in 2003, she wrote to the children telling them that she intended to leave her new home to her son Richard. He had helped her with the purchase, and she explained to the children that she had placed her new home in joint tenancy (with right of survivorship) with Richard. She did not, however, sign a new will at that time.

In 2006 Ms. Marsh moved to an assisted living facility, and the condominium was sold. The proceeds from that sale then became a bone of contention between her son Richard and her daughter Elaine Grayson. Richard thought the proceeds should be put into an account in his and his mother’s names as joint tenants; Elaine insisted that the proceeds be placed in an account in Ms. Marsh’s name alone.

As the two siblings (and their respective spouses) debated how to handle the sale proceeds, Elaine’s husband John filed a guardianship petition. He alleged that Ms. Marsh had Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Richard opposed the guardianship petition, and the relationship between the two couples deteriorated.

A month after the guardianship was filed Ms. Marsh prepared a one-paragraph will in her own handwriting. It said:

Because of all the legal problems Elaine and John are causing, I am afraid my final wishes will be ignored. To prevent this from happening, this is my new will: I leave everything to my son Richard and his wife Sam. I love you all very much.

This new will was witnessed by Ms. Marsh’s priest and the church secretary. She apparently did show it to Richard shortly after she signed it (he says he told her to “hide this someplace” and think it over), but she did not share it with Elaine or her husband John.

After Ms. Marsh’s death in 2008, Richard filed the handwritten will with the Ohio probate court. Elaine objected, arguing that (a) Ms. Marsh had been incompetent at the time of the will’s signing, and (b) Richard and his wife had exerted undue influence over Ms. Marsh to get her to disinherit Elaine. The probate court granted summary judgment to Richard, thereby dismissing the objections raised by Elaine.

The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed with the probate court on the first issue, but sent the dispute back to probate court for further proceedings regarding the undue influence count. Despite a diagnosis of dementia, and despite forgetfulness and confusion, the appellate court agreed that Ms. Marsh appeared to understand the things needed to make a valid will. She knew who her children (and in-laws) were, and even though she may not have known the precise nature of her assets she did understand what was involved with her estate. She knew she was making a will, and the effect of doing so. Summary judgment was appropriate on the question of her legal capacity to sign a will. Despite her limitations, despite her diagnosis and despite her living situation, she was able to make her new will.

But it still might be possible to show that she was subjected to undue influence, and the appellate court took pains to distinguish the two concepts. Undue influence, the court noted, is not the same as general influence — even “strong and controlling” influence. To be “undue,” influence must be so pervasive and effective as to result in the document reflecting the wishes of the influencer and not those of the signer. That is a high barrier for a will challenger to cross, but Elaine should be given a chance to introduce evidence to support her claim, ruled the Court of Appeals. In Re Estate of Marsh, October 28, 2011.

Other than the obvious (“don’t exercise undue influence over seniors”), what lessons can we take from Ms. Marsh’s story to guide our actions when working with seniors like her? We might submit a couple for your consideration:

  • Don’t forget that, while you and other family members dispute how best to handle the senior’s finances (or life), he or she may have some strong opinions and may actually feel affected by your decisions, arguments and tactics.
  • “Winning” may not be as important in family disputes as figuring out a way to get along. The cost of this particular dispute: thousands of dollars in legal fees, irreparable damage to family relationships and (and not least) psychic injury to the individual everyone was trying to protect.
  • Family disputes are sometimes about the best interests of a vulnerable family member, sometimes about dollars, sometimes about pride, and sometimes about control. In our professional experience, those last are often the most difficult ones to resolve.
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