In recent years, Surrogate’s Courts have become increasingly inclined to grant motions for summary judgment in contested probate proceedings when warranted. A decision issued last week in Monroe County is yet another example of this trend. While the evidence presented by the objectants in this particular case appears to be exceptionally weak, the following analysis provides a cohesive illustration of the considerations and standards that Surrogates routinely utilize in analyzing typical objections.
In Matter of Feller, 2010 NY Slip Op 50001(U), eight of the decedent’s eleven known distributees filed objections to probate, alleging the customary lack of due execution, lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. The decedent executed a last will and testament nine months prior to her death, leaving her estate to ten charities and four individuals in equal shares, and naming the attorney-draftsman as executor. The New York State Attorney General’s Office filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to dismiss the objections.
The objectants contended that the will was not duly executed within the requirements of EPTL 3-2.1 because the attorney-draftsman/proponent, not the testator, requested that that the witnesses act. But the testimony of the attorney-draftsman demonstrated that the testatrix responded in the affirmative when questioned as to whether she wanted those present to witness the execution of the instrument. The Court opined that this conduct coupled with the circumstances surrounding the execution ceremony satisfied the due execution requirements of EPTL 3-2.1. Indeed, “[a]ttorneys routinely lead their clients through the will execution formalities in order to ensure that the requirements of EPTL 3-2.1 are satisfied . . . and . . . publication and instruction . . . is not required to be in any ‘ironclad ceremonial or ritualistic language’” (Matter of Feller, supra, citing In re Douglas’ Will 193 Misc 623, 631-632 [Sur Ct, Broome County 1948]).
With respect to testamentary capacity, the Court noted the presumption in favor of capacity when a will is drafted by, and the execution supervised by, an attorney. In this case, the Court held that the proponent established a prima facie case of the requisite capacity based upon the following facts:
· The decedent herself sought the services of the attorney-draftsman;
· The decedent personally met with the attorney-draftsman and brought detailed notes as to her desired estate plan;
· The decedent told the attorney-draftsman about her familial situation;
· The witnesses were aware of the decedent’s involvement in her estate planning, and testified that she appeared to have no visual, auditory or cognitive difficulties; and
· The decedent made specific and accurate changes to the draft of the will.
In fact, the only basis for the allegation of lack of capacity was one of the objectant’s observations that the decedent had appeared preoccupied, reserved and distracted during a visit that occurred around the time that the will had been executed. Citing holdings of the Appellate Division that evidence of sadness or confusion alone is insufficient to prove lack of capacity, the Court rejected this contention. The Court further explained that a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or simply old age, without more, would also be insufficient to override a prima facie showing of capacity (id., citing Matter of Nofal, 35 AD3d 1132 [3d Dept 2006]; Matter of Castiglione, 40 AD3d 1227 [3d Dept 2007]; Matter of Minasian, 149 AD2d 511 [2d Dept 1989]; Matter of Hedges, 100 AD2d 586 [2d Dept 1984]).
Addressing the claims of undue influence, the court reiterated that it is an objectant’s burden to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence, (1) motive, (2) opportunity, and (3) actual undue influence. Undue influence must amount to “a moral coercion, which restrained independent action and destroyed free agency or which . . . constrained the testator to do that which was against his free will and desire . . .” (id.,quoting Children’s Aid Society of NY v Loveridge, 70 NY 387, 394 )., The Court further noted that undue influence may proved by circumstantial evidence, “but the circumstances must lead to it not only by a fair inference but as a necessary conclusion” (id., quoting In re Will of Henderson, 253 AD 140 [4th Dept 1937]).
The objectants’ claim of undue influence alleged that the proponent persuaded the testator to change her funeral home of choice to one that was a client of the proponent. However, the proponent testified that he made no recommendations regarding the decedent’s testamentary plan, but tried to persuade her to choose another executor. In addition, the record demonstrated that every time the decedent met with the proponent regarding her estate plan, she was not accompanied by anyone. In view of these facts, the Court held that the Objectants failed to meet their burden in connection with their allegations of undue influence (see Matter of Feller, supra).
Interestingly enough, there was no discussion of a confidential relationship between the decedent and proponent in this case, and thus, the burden of proof did not shift. After all, an attorney-client relationship often gives rise to a confidential relationship, and a consequential presumption of undue influence (see e.g., Weber v Burman, 22 Misc 3d 1104[A] [Sup Ct, Nassau County 2008]; Estate of Olson, 5/16/2006 NYLJ 33 [col 4] [Sur Ct, Richmond County]). Perhaps this was not considered because the attorney-draftsman was not a beneficiary, but I would submit that such a relationship is arguably relevant here, in light of the allegations.