Claimant Must Prove Undue Influence, Lack of Capacity

AUGUST 27, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 33
It has been some time since we wrote about the concepts of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity — and the differences between these two legal concepts. A recent Minnesota appellate case strikes us as a good opportunity to revisit challenges to wills and trusts based on allegations of mental shortcomings.

Linda Samson (not her real name) was a widow, living in her own home in Minnesota. She had two children, a son and a daughter. She and her late husband had created a living trust several years before her husband’s death; it provided that after the second spouse died, the remaining estate would be divided into three shares. One share would go to the couple’s daughter, another to their son, and the third to their son’s wife.

In 2003 Linda was diagnosed with “early-state Alzheimer’s disease.” In 2006 she signed an amendment to her trust deleting both her daughter and daughter-in-law (and leaving everything to her son). In 2008 she signed two deeds to her home — one transferred her home out of the trust and into her name alone, and the second one transferred her home from her name into her son’s name (but reserving a life estate for herself).

Between her initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis and 2008 Linda’s medical records periodically referred to her memory loss but indicated that she was stable. She continued to live at home, though with some assistance. She had a sharp mental decline in the summer of 2008, and by fall of that year a home health agency was recommending 24-hour care. She moved into a nursing home in the spring of 2009, was enrolled in a hospice program and died in June of that year.

Linda’s daughter objected to the 2006 amendment to Linda’s trust and to the 2008 transfer of her home. She argued that her mother lacked the capacity to sign either of those sets of documents, and/or that her brother must have unduly influenced their mother to his own benefit (and her detriment).

The probate judge heard testimony from several people who knew and/or treated Linda. Two expert witnesses hired by her daughter, both doctors, had reviewed Linda’s medical records but had never met her. They testified that her capacity was obviously diminished, and that it would have been possible to unduly influence her.

On the other side, the lawyer who prepared the trust amendment and the deeds to her house testified that, though he had not met his client before, she seemed to be able to explain her reasoning for the changes and she knew who her children were and what she was doing. He testified that she had told him that it saddened her that her daughter was not very involved in her life, but that she was pleased at the extra care and attention she received from her son and his son, her grandson.

Both the initial and the follow-up sets of appointments with the lawyer had been arranged by Linda’s son, but in both cases (he testified) it was at her request. Although the lawyer had met with both Linda and her son initially, further discussions were with Linda alone; the transfer of the house had actually been initiated by the lawyer rather than either Linda or her son. The lawyer pointed out that it didn’t really change the disposition of her estate at all, since Linda’s son was already the sole beneficiary of her trust estate.

There was one odd moment, according to the lawyer’s testimony. During one of the interviews with Linda he sought to establish that she knew her family members and the relationships (a key part of the standard for determining testamentary capacity). When he asked Linda about her daughter, she said that she was sorry that they were not closer, that the daughter was on her third husband (in fact, her husband had just died), and that her daughter had suspected that she, Linda, had had an affair with the husband. When the lawyer expressed surprise and asked follow-up questions, Linda dismissed the idea and said she had gotten confused; that had been the plot of a biblical story she had read.

After trial, the probate judge ruled that Linda’s daughter had not proven that her mother lacked testamentary capacity OR that her brother exercised undue influence. The judge noted that the supporter of questioned documents has the burden of proof that the documents were executed properly. After that, though, the contestant of a will or trust has the burden of proving allegations of undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity. Linda’s daughter introduced testimony that there could have been undue influence, and that Linda’s capacity might be suspect — but her burden had been to prove that there was undue influence, or that Linda actually did not understand what she was signing.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, upholding the probate judge’s ruling. The appellate judges had the same understanding of the burden of proof, and saw no reason to set aside the probate judge’s findings. Linda’s last trust changes, and the transfer of her home to her son, were both upheld. In the Matter of the Smith Living Trust, August 20, 2012.

This Minnesota case is not the most eloquent on the subject, and of course it would have little or no precedential value in Arizona. The opinion is also “unpublished,” which means that the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided that it should not be cited as precedent even in Minnesota itself. Still, there are several reasons we like the decision and call attention to it here:

  • It is a nice exposition of the “burden of proof” issue, pointing out that many will and trust contests lose not because the proponent of the document prevails but because the contestant fails. Generally speaking, the person who challenges a will, trust, deed or other estate planning document has to overcome the presumption that the signer was competent and knew what he or she was doing.
  • It describes the sorts of things a good lawyer should do to protect the validity of documents he or she prepares. The lawyer met with Linda alone (we would have liked it even better if he had never met with Linda and her son together, but at least he dealt primarily with Linda directly), the deed change was prompted not by Linda’s son but by the lawyer himself, the lawyer could testify that he routinely took steps to assure that his clients are competent and aware of what they are doing.
  • On the other hand, the contestant had to rely, as is often the case, on inference and reconstruction. The contestant’s two expert witnesses had never met Linda, and their opinions were consequently guarded (they said that she was susceptible to undue influence, but they could not testify to the extent of any influence they might suspect).
  • Perhaps most importantly, the opinion makes clear that even someone with a long-standing diagnosis of dementia might still be able to sign estate planning documents. Testamentary capacity (the ability to sign a will) is not immediately compromised by virtue of a dementia diagnosis; Linda had carried her diagnosis for several years but still had the capacity to understand the nature of her trust change, to identify her family members and to describe what assets she wanted to pass to her son. The fact that she had one episode of fairly serious confusion did not prevent her from signing her new trust.
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