July 23, 2013
Authored by: Luke Lantta
Standing to caveat a will? Check. Undue influence? Check. Testamentary capacity? Check. Monomania? Fraud? Check and double check. While the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in Odom v. Hughes didn’t break any new ground, it examined such a wide range of will contest topics that it’s definitely worth a read. Without further ado . . .
Standing To Caveat
Standing to caveat a will has been a relatively popular topic in Georgia’s appellate courts over the last few years. Standing is determined on a case-by-case basis with the general rule that a will may be contested by any person “interested” in the estate of the decedent. Of course, that begs the question of who is such an “interested person.” In Odom v. Hughes, one of the caveators was the testator’s grandson. Through a warranty deed, the testator granted real property to this caveator and two others as joint tenants with the rights of survivorship, reserving a life estate for the testator. The will propounded by the executor stated that if the remainder interests were transferred to the testator, the two joint tenants (other than the grandson-caveator) and the executor would share the real property upon the testator’s death, but if not, then the executor would take all interest in the real property that the testator had to give. Because the remainder interests were not transferred to the testator, if the will was upheld, the executor succeeded to whatever claim the testator would make to the property, including the possibility of canceling the deed granting the real property. Because cancellation would certainly be adverse to this caveator’s interests, he had a sufficient interest in the proceeding to provide standing to caveat the will.
A jury returned a finding that the challenged will was the product of undue influence. The Georgia Supreme Court found that there was sufficient evidence to support the verdict. Because undue influence cases are so fact specific, here are the facts that were sufficient to support a finding of undue influence:
- Before the testator signed the challenged will, all of the drafting attorney’s communications regarding the contents of the will were with the person the caveator claimed had unduly influenced the testator. It was the alleged undue influencer who told the drafting attorney what the testator wanted in the will.
- Another attorney, who had some direct contact with the testator, had drafted a will that was not as beneficial to the alleged undue influencer as the will that was ultimately executed and propounded.
- The alleged undue influencer attempted to have the drafting attorney prepare the propounded will without the testator being aware that this particular attorney was the drafter of it, even though the testator was the drafter’s client, and the alleged undue influencer expressed to a financial advisor the need to “legally engage” the caveators in an effort to reduce their financial resources for an expected will contest.
- The propounded will abandoned the prior will’s insistence that the alleged undue influencer repay a loan owed to the testator.
- There was evidence that the testator had diminished mental faculties, and “the influence necessary to dominate a weak mind is less than that necessary to dominate a strong one.”
Lack of Testamentary Capacity
The jury also returned a finding that the testator lacked the requisite capacity to execute a will. Again, these are very fact specific cases, so here’s the evidence that supported the lack of testamentary capacity verdict:
- Nurses who cared for the testator in the weeks surrounding the signing of the will testified that the testator was regularly confused and didn’t appear to understand her medical conditions, including dementia; the testator’s memory when it came to instructions lasted about 2 minutes; and the testator’s blood sugar levels were out of control.
- The testator was apparently not taking her memory mediation for a month or more around the time the will was signed.
- During the period that the alleged undue influencer was communicating with drafting attorneys, she repeatedly described the testator’s problems understanding legal and financial matters. For example, the testator misidentified her own children on a questionnaire given to her by the drafting attorney on the day the testator signed the will.
Remember our prior comments about how videotaped wills often backfire? Looks like that may have happened here. The jury viewed a videotaped meeting between the testator and the attorney who prepared the draft will that wasn’t as beneficial to the alleged undue influencer. The court noted that the jury could have drawn inferences about the testator’s capacity from that video.
While it’s true that the witnesses to the will all testified they believed the testator had testamentary capacity, the foregoing evidence was sufficient for the jury to find a lack of capacity.
You don’t see monomania will cases come up that often, but monomania is a single pathological preoccupation. In will cases, this delusion is usually about family members having done something wrong to the testator. In this instance, the alleged monomania was the testator’s delusion that her relatives had “stolen” her house from her. There was evidence for the jury to conclude that the testator suffered from monomania because the warranty deed showed that the relatives had not, in fact, “stolen” the house.
The Georgia Supreme Court concluded that there was evidence that the alleged undue influencer had misrepresented to the testator the nature of the transfer of the real property through the warranty deed and the caveators’ behavior toward the testator’s property.