November 23, 2011
Authored by: Luke Lantta
We’ve previously noted that undue influence cases are very fact specific. In other words, the results of undue influence estate litigation will vary greatly based on the underlying facts. Of course, this leads to bad facts often making bad law in this area.
Celia Beth Simmons and Lisa Kay Norton filed caveats claiming that the will of their father, Charles Powell Norton, was the product of the undue influence of their brother, Samuel P. Norton. The probate court, superior court, and Georgia Supreme Court all rejected the caveats based on a complete lack of evidence that Samuel exerted any influence over Charles in the making of the will.
A lot of finger pointing always takes place over who drives the testator to the attorney’s office. Merely driving a testator to the lawyer’s office isn’t evidence of undue influence. Here, Charles met alone with the drafting attorney, explained to the attorney how he wanted his property disposed of upon his death, and made an appointment to return to the office to execute the will. Samuel drove Charles to that return appointment, greeted Charles’s lawyer, and then sat in the car while Charles executed the will.
There was also no evidence that a confidential relationship existed between Charles and Samuel. In Georgia, the fact that Charles and Samuel were father and son does not in itself create a confidential relationship. Even if a confidential relationship existed, at most Samuel had an opportunity to influence Charles, which is insufficient to show the exercise of undue influence.
This case also involved the common allegation that the will Charles executed didn’t reflect what he had been telling everyone his estate plan was. These prior declarations of Charles do not show the exercise of undue influence. Charles had the right to change his mind and had the right to avoid the awkward conversation of telling some of his kids they weren’t getting the same amount as some of his other kids.
Apparently there was some argument that Charles had impaired physical and mental health. Interestingly, the Georgia Supreme Court noted that Charles’s physical and mental health was of little relevance absent any evidence that Samuel attempted to exert undue influence with respect to Charles’s will.
Another interesting statement by the Georgia Supreme Court related to evidence of undue influence after the execution of the will. The exercise of undue influence over a testator after the will is executed does not support a finding that undue influence was exerted over the testator at the time the will was executed.