December 14, 2011
Authored by: Luke Lantta
In a number of jurisdictions, there may be a presumption or inference of undue influence when a testator gives all or part of his or her estate to a person who is not the “natural object of the decedent’s bounty.”
In other words, a son or daughter is usually considered the natural object of a testator’s bounty so that the testator can give all of his or her estate to one child to the exclusion of the others without creating a presumption of undue influence on that basis alone. Conversely, if a testator gives all of his or her estate to a friend or ‘stranger’ to the exclusion of his or her children, then that friend is usually not the natural object of the testator’s bounty and that may create a presumption of undue influence.
With that background, that’s why it is unusual that a trial court in Massachusetts recently determined that a testator’s friend and not the testator’s adopted daughter was the natural object of the testator’s bounty. The Appeals Court of Massachusetts affirmed this part of the trial court’s decision in Purcell v. Landers, but reversed the trial court on failing to require trial testimony of the witnesses who attested to the will.
So, how does a friend become the natural object of a testator’s bounty while a daughter loses that status? Threaten to set the testator’s house on fire with him in it.
Richard Landers was a good friend of the decedent, Walter V. Haley. The two had been friendly for over forty years and became daily companions after the death of Haley’s wife in 1984. In addition, Landers became Haley’s legal guardian as Haley’s health deteriorated. Evidence showed that, in the end, Landers was the only true friend Haley had. On this basis, the judge “reasonably concluded” that Landers became the natural object of Haley’s bounty.
In contrast, Lisa Purcell, Haley’s adopted daughter, admitted to sufficient facts and a guilty finding was entered on a charge of threatening to commit a crime against Haley (although she was acquitted of an accompanying charge of larceny). Purcell had threatened to burn Haley’s house down with him in it. Purcell was acquitted on the larceny charge because the money she took was from an account she held jointly with Haley. Since that incident in 1992, Purcell and Haley were estranged. Thus, Purcell “was not and, under the circumstances, could not be the object of the decedent’s bounty.”
So, it’s only natural that Purcell sued Landers based on allegations of forgery, duress or undue influence, and concerns for the genuineness of the will and the circumstances surrounding its execution when Haley left the entirety of his estate to Landers.
Although the appellate court affirmed the majority of the trial court’s decision, it reversed with respect to the trial court striking Purcell’s objections regarding the execution of the will.
At trial, Purcell objected that the attesting witnesses had not testified to execution as required by Massachusetts law (both witnesses were alive and residing in Massachusetts). The trial judge allowed the will and told Purcell that “if [she] wished to she could have subpoenaed the witnesses.” This was error.
Once challenged, the judge should have required the testimony by attesting witness, but instead he inappropriately shifted the burden of producing the witnesses on Purcell. Under Massachusetts law, the propounder of the will has the burden to prove proper execution of the decedent’s will and, therefore, the case was sent back down to the trial court for testimony by the attesting witnesses and/or related evidence.