March 11, 2014
Authored by: Luke Lantta
Guardianship actions sometimes serve as a precursor to will contests. If a petitioner seeks a guardianship of an alleged incapacitated adult and loses, what implications does that ruling have on a later will contest alleging incapacity? In Copelan v. Copelan, the Georgia Supreme Court addressed that question while cleaning up some overruled guardianship law. In the end, it came down to the standard of proof.
Two of Evelyn Copelan’s children – Tommy and John – were each left a dollar in Evelyn’s will. Evelyn’s other two children – Uyvonna and Danny – received almost the entire estate. Tommy and John opposed admission of the will to probate, claiming that Evelyn lacked testamentary capacity and was unduly influenced. The probate court admitted the will to probate, and Tommy and John appealed to superior court where, after a jury trial, the court denied Uyvonna and Danny’s petition to probate the will. Uyvonna and Danny appealed.
Before the will contest, however, there were two other cases involving Evelyn’s capacity. First, Tommy and John filed a lawsuit seeking a guardianship of Evelyn. The trial court agreed to the guardianship, but the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Tommy and John failed to prove a guardianship was needed by “clear and convincing evidence.”
Second, Tommy and John filed a lawsuit seeking to set aside certain deeds by which Evelyn conveyed real property to Uyvonna and Danny. The Court of Appeals relied on its earlier guardianship opinion to hold that Tommy and John were collaterally estopped from alleging that Evelyn was incapacitated or unduly influenced when she executed the deeds.
Based on the guardianship and deed decisions, Uyvonna and Danny claimed that Tommy and John should again be collaterally estopped from alleging that Evelyn was incapacitated or unduly influenced when she executed the will.
The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed. Collateral estoppel attaches only when the same issue has been litigated and decided before. After the Georgia Court of Appeals decided the deed case, the Georgia Supreme Court determined in a different case that the “clear and convincing evidence” standard used by the Court of Appeals in the guardianship case was wrong. Thus, this case did not present the same issues as the prior cases.
In the prior cases, Tommy and John were subjected to a higher standard of proof (clear and convincing evidence, albeit erroneously) than was required in the will contest case (preponderance of the evidence). The failure to prove something by a higher standard will not work a collateral estoppel in a subsequent case in which the same thing need only be proven by a lower standard.