Estate litigators arguably see more probate contests than any other type of conflict. While the details are always unique, they almost always include allegations that someone unduly influenced the decedent to change his or her will to either disinherit, or favor, a particular person.  These cases also often include an allegation — which is usually contested — that the purported influencer was in a “confidential relationship” with the decedent.  The frequency of such claims beg the questions (1) what exactly is a “confidential relationship,” and (2) what is the practical benefit to an objectant in establishing that one existed?

A confidential relationship is characterized as unique degree of trust and confidence between the parties, one of whom has superior knowledge, skill or expertise and is under a duty to represent the interests of the other. Some relationships are considered confidential as a matter of law, i.e., attorney-client, guardian-ward, and physician-patient, to name a few, while others will be deemed confidential as a matter of fact, based upon the details of the relationship, i.e., when one person is dependent on, and subject to the control of, another (see Matter of Satterlee, 281 AD 251 [1st Dept 1953]).

In a probate contest, it always is the burden of the objectant to prove that someone perpetrated undue influence upon the testator by establishing motive, opportunity, and the actual exercise of that undue influence (Matter of Walther, 6 NY2d 49, 55 [1959]; see Matter of Ryan, 34 AD3d 212, 213-14 [1st Dept 2006]).  However, where it is established that the decedent was in a confidential relationship with the alleged influencer, and there were other “suspicious circumstances” present (such as the alleged influencer having retained the attorney-draftsman for the decedent, or having accompanied the decedent to the will execution, for example) an inference of undue influence arises.  That inference requires the person in the confidential relationship to explain the circumstances surrounding the relationship between him and the decedent, and to establish by clear and convincing evidence that the subject bequest was fair and voluntary. (see Matter of Neenan, 35 AD3d 475, 476 [2d Dept 2006]; Matter of Bartel, 214 AD2d 476 [1st Dept 1995]).

As with most aspects of the law, there is an exception. Where the person in the confidential relationship also shared a close family relationship with the decedent, no inference of undue inference arises, and therefore, no explanation of a bequest in favor of that person will be required (see Matter of Walther, 6 NY2d 49 [1959]; Matter of Zirinsky, 10 Misc 3d 1052[A] [Sur Ct, Nassau County 2005]). This is generally because “a sense of family duty is inexplicably intertwined in this relationship” (Matter of Zirinsky, 10 Misc 3d at *8-9).  The exception exists despite the presence of “suspicious circumstances.”  Unsurprisingly, this often leads to questions about what degree of family relationship is close enough to negate the inference.

It must be noted that the inference of undue influence that may arise as a result of a confidential relationship should not be confused with shifting the burden of proof from the objectant (see Matter of Neenan, 35 AD3d 475 [2d Dept 2006]).  The burden of proving undue influence in the context of a will contest never shifts (see Matter of Bach, 133 AD2d 455, 456 [2d Dept 1987] quoting Matter of Collins, 124 AD2d 48, 54 [4th Dept 1987]).  The inference just makes it a little bit easier for an objectant to satisfy that burden, and ultimately succeed in his or her case.

Estate litigation oftentimes arises when parents favor one or more of their children over others in their estate plans. Fortunately, at least for the parents, they typically do not have to deal with the issues involved in the litigation, as they are deceased by the time that it arises. As the Second Department’s decision in Sharrow v. Sheridan demonstrates, however, disfavored children do not always wait for their parents to pass before commencing litigation concerning the parents’ assets. Indeed, some disfavored children have gone so far as to sue their parents and siblings as “potential heirs” of the parents’ estates. This blog entry explains why such a strategy will prove unsuccessful.

In Sharrow, the plaintiff commenced an action against his mother and his sister, seeking to impose a constructive trust on certain assets that the mother transferred to the sister (see Sharrow v. Sheridan, 91 AD3d 940, 940-41 [2d Dept 2012]). The plaintiff alleged that a constructive trust was warranted because the sister exercised duress and undue influence on the ailing mother in pressuring her to transfer the assets to the sister (see id.). When the mother and sister moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint, the plaintiff asserted that he had standing to seek a constructive trust over the assets formerly belonging to his mother as a “potential heir” of her estate (see id.).

The Supreme Court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss and the Appellate Division affirmed (see id.). In affirming, the Second Department found that the plaintiff lacked standing to seek to impose a constructive trust on the assets that his mother transferred to his sister (see id.). As the court explained, for as long as she was alive, the mother had “the absolute right to change her intentions regarding the distribution of her assets” (see id.). Accordingly, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s interest as a “potential heir” of his mother’s estate was a “potential, speculative interest” that did not vest him with standing to prosecute a constructive trust claim concerning his mother’s former assets (see id.).

Of course, Sharrow is not the only case in which a child sought to void an inter vivos transfer made by a parent as a potential heir of the parent’s estate. In Schneider v. David, the plaintiff commenced an action to impose a constructive trust on real property that her mother transferred to her brother (see Schneider v. David, 169 AD2d 506, 506-08 [1st Dept 1991]). Among other things, the plaintiff alleged that her brother had fraudulently induced their elderly mother to convey the properly to him by telling the mother that the deed she signed only permitted him to manage the property while she was out-of-state (see id.). The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing – with his mother’s support – that the plaintiff lacked standing to seek a constructive trust (see id.).

Although the Supreme Court denied the defendant’s motion, the First Department reversed (see id.). The Appellate Division reasoned that the plaintiff was not a party to her mother’s conveyance of the property and could not void it simply because she considered herself to be an heir of her living mother’s estate (see id.). In short, the plaintiff’s self-serving description of herself as a potential heir of her mother’s estate did not cloak her with standing to sue or exercise rights on her mother’s behalf (see id.).

There are several lessons to take away from Sharrow and Schneider, the most obvious of which is for children to respect the wishes of their parents as those wishes relate to the parents’ assets during life. Putting the obvious aside, however, disfavored children and their attorneys should take note of the well-reasoned legal principle that, as “potential heirs” of their parents’ estates, they lack standing to take legal action concerning their parents’ assets. During their lives, the assets belong to the parents and are subject to the parents’ absolute right to dispose of their property as they wish.

 

Undue influence is an issue commonly associated with Surrogate’s Court proceedings. Indeed, it is often the linchpin to the outcome of a matter, and as such, relevant to its strategy. This is most pointedly revealed by opinions rendered by the Surrogates of New York and Kings County this year, in which the issue of undue influence played a primary role in connection with a contested probate proceeding.

In In re Moles, N.Y.L.J., Apr. 18, 2011, p. 23 (Sur Ct, New York County), the preliminary executors of the estate moved for summary judgment dismissing the objections of the decedent’s nephew, who was the beneficiary of a prior will executed thirty years earlier than the propounded instrument. The objections alleged, inter alia, that the instrument was not duly executed, and that the instrument was procured by the fraud and undue influence of the decedent’s long-time companion, who was the sole beneficiary of the estate, and the named executor along with the attorney-draftsperson.

The undisputed record revealed that the decedent had a history of alcohol abuse for which she was hospitalized and later rehabilitated. Upon completion of her rehabilitation, she returned to New York City where she retained the services of a personal aide whom resided with her until her death twenty years later.  Over the course of her employ, there was no dispute that the decedent and her aide became inseparable, spending every day together, and traveling domestically and overseas. Further, there was no dispute that the decedent was capable of making financial and personal decisions regarding her investments and health care.

The decedent’s treating physician testified that she always found the decedent fully responsive and rational. This was substantiated as well by the attorney-draftsperson of the instrument, who stated that he found the decedent alert, coherent and able to convey detailed information regarding her life situation and family.

Notably, the will execution was videotaped and supervised by the draftsperson’s colleague.

In granting the proponents summary relief, the court rejected the notion that the decedent’s early alcoholism impaired her capacity to execute a will, as well as the testimony of the videographer relied upon by the objectant, who testified that the decedent had difficulty identifying the President of the United States. The court held that this evidence paled in light of the reports and testimony of the professionals who treated and worked with the decedent during the period surrounding the execution of the instrument, all of which indicated that she possessed the minimal capacity required to make a valid Will.

As to the issue of undue influence, the court concluded that the objectant had failed to submit any evidence that the decedent’s aide had compelled or constrained the decedent to do anything against her free will. In fact, the objectant admitted that he saw the decedent at most one to two times a year, and that her other family members rarely visited her.

The court found it significant that the attorney-draftsperson of the instrument testified that the provisions of the Will were derived from instructions given to him by the decedent with no involvement of the decedent’s aide. To this extent, the court opined that the lack of involvement by the proponent in a will’s drafting and execution is inconsistent with any inference of undue influence, even where the disinherited party is a close family member. Further, the court held that even assuming the existence of a confidential relationship between the proponent and the decedent, it was counterbalanced by the evidence of the strong affection between the decedent and her aide during their twenty year relationship, the decedent’s expressed desire to leave her aide her entire estate, and her aide’s lack of involvement in the drafting of the Will.

Finally, the court concluded that the objectant had failed to produce a modicum of proof that anyone induced the decedent to execute her Will based upon a false statement.

In comparison to the holding in In re Moles, the court in In re Carter, N.Y.L.J., Apr. 18, 2011, p. 25 (Sur Ct, Kings County), found that the inference of undue influence required that the propounded instrument be denied probate. The facts of the case are in stark contrast to those in Moles and substantiate the differing opinions.

In Carter, the propounded instrument left the decedent’s entire estate, but for 25% percent of any cash due and owing to the decedent’s sole surviving heir, her sister, to a complete stranger (Frazier), who was also named the executor,. The instrument also directed that in the event the decedent’s sister should be admitted to a nursing home, her share should pass instead to Frazier, and that Frazier pay an amount, not to exceed 11 % of the residuary estate, to charities of his choice.

The record revealed that Frazier was 40 years the decedent’s junior, was not related to the decedent, yet, was her self-described caretaker, and that he was an instrumental force behind the execution of the propounded instrument. The court held that, under these circumstances, as well as events described in its own files and through the testimony of Frazier, an inference of undue influence existed requiring a hearing. Notably, the court found that Frazier had been previously appointed as fiduciary in a number of other estates of women significantly older than him, and with whom he had no relationship, that were strikingly similar to the factual situation involving this decedent.

Based on the testimony and evidence adduced at the hearing, the court concluded that Frazier had engaged in a systematic course to take over the personal and financial affairs of the decedent, whom he knew had been diagnosed with dementia, much as he did in the case of countless other elderly and frail women to whom he ingratiated himself. He moved into her home, put his name on her bank accounts, monitored her telephone calls, put her under surveillance and held her health care proxy. Significantly, the record also disclosed that in 2006, when the decedent was overtly suffering mentally, and when no attorney would draft a Will for her, he allegedly acceded to her insistence upon executing a new Will by retyping a prior Will of the decedent, with the decedent’s handwritten changes, and taking the decedent to her doctor’s office to have it signed and witnessed. 

At the conclusion of the hearing, the court concluded, inter alia, that Frazier’s testimony gave rise to a strong inference of undue influence, based in particular, upon his complete insinuation into the decedent’s life and financial affairs, the decedent’s dependence upon him for her basic needs, and his involvement in the preparation and execution of the instrument which made him the primary recipient of her estate. The court held that Frazier offered nothing to rebut this proof, but rather buttressed the result that the Will of the decedent was the product of his own decision-making, and control over its preparation and execution.

Accordingly, probate was denied.


 

 

 

In a recent decision in the Estate of Mildred Rosasco , Surrogate Glen carefully explains the difference between undue influence and duress, two legal concepts that have become conflated in Surrogate’s Court practice. 

If you speak with a trusts and estate’s lawyer and ask her to define undue influence, you will hear something like “undue influence is moral coercion that destroys a testator’s will to act independently and leads the testator to act contrary to his own desires because he cannot refuse or is too weak to resist.”   However confident that lawyer sounded in her recitation of this definition, understand that the Court of Appeals has stated, as Surrogate Glen tells us, that "[i]t is impossible to define or describe with precision and exactness what is undue influence . . ."  In Rosasco, Surrogate Glen explains how courts have struggled with the concept of undue influence, citing to decisions dating back to the 19th Century, and how the Court of Appeals, in Matter of Walther (6 NY2d 49 [1959]), affirmed the explanation of undue influence cited above.

What is critical in a probate contest involving an objection on the grounds of undue influence is that a prima facie case of undue influence requires a showing, not only of opportunity and motive to exercise undue influence, but also, of the actual exercise of undue influence.  Although undue influence can be proven by circumstantial evidence, as there is rarely direct proof of undue influence, it can only be proven by substantial circumstantial evidence.  Undue influence is difficult to prove, but the burden of proving undue influence is eased where there is a showing that the testator was in a relationship of trust and dependence with proponent of the will, i.e., the existence of a confidential relationship. Surrogate Riordan’s decision in Matter of Zirinsky is a must read for anyone trying to get a handle on undue influence (Also review the Appellate Court decision on the appeal of the Zirinsky case).

As to duress, Surrogate Glen, citing the Restatement (Third) of Property, notes that duress is something different from undue influence. She explains that a will or a bequest is procured by duress if the wrongdoer threatened to perform or did perform a wrongful act that coerced the testator into doing something that she would not otherwise have done. A “wrongful act” in this definition means a criminal act or an act that the wrongdoer had no right to do. 

One can understand how the two concepts differ by examining a three-year-old child’s threats.  When a three-year-old has his mind set on eating a second piece of chocolate or on watching a cartoon that features incredible acts of violence, he might threaten to flush his father "down the toilet."   In the alternative, he might repeatedly and sincerely state that he will not talk to his father until he receives his chocolate or is gratified by watching Spiderman deliver bone-crushing blows. Flushing another human being down the toilet would certainly constitute a crime.  The three-year-old child’s father taking this threat seriously and acting on this threat could be said to be acting under duress.   On the other hand, absent some legal relationship, such as that which a guardian has with his ward, a person is well within his rights to refuse and refrain from talking or associating with another.  If the three-year-old child’s father is acting on the child’s threat to cut off all communication, he might be said to be acting as a result of undue influence.   

An interesting issue recently arose in an uncontested probate proceeding before the Bronx County Surrogate’s Court, namely, whether the disqualifying provision of EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1) is applicable to an instrument executed outside of this jurisdiction. 

In Estate of Alford, 2010 NY Slip Op 51707(U) (Sur Ct, Bronx County 2010), the sole beneficiary of the decedent’s estate was a Canadian citizen and was one of two attesting witnesses to the subject will. The execution of the instrument occurred in Ontario, Canada. 

Pursuant to EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1),

(a) An attesting witness to a will to whom a beneficial disposition or appointment of property is made is a competent witness and compellable to testify respecting the execution of such will as if no such disposition or appointment had been made, subject to the following:

(1) Any such disposition or appointment made to an attesting witness is void unless there are, at the time of execution and attestation, at least two other attesting witnesses to the will who receive no beneficial disposition or appointment thereunder.

 

In other words, the statute mandates the invalidation of a bequest to the witness beneficiary if he or she is one of two attesting witnesses whose testimony would be required to probate the instrument. While a distributee, such as the beneficiary this case, remains entitled to his intestate share of the estate even if he is a witness to the execution of the will (EPTL §3-3.2(a)(3)), this beneficiary would inherit more under the will than his intestate share.

In making its determination, the court considered the following factors: (1) that EPTL § 3-5.1(c) provides that a will is valid in New York if it was validly executed in another jurisdiction; (2) that in Canada, a bequest to a witness beneficiary is void only if there was undue influence over the testator, which was not alleged here; and (3) in this particular case, no interested party contested the will or requested that the beneficiary testify. Thus, because it was determined that the instrument was validly executed pursuant to the laws of Ontario, Surrogate Holzman held that EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1) was inapplicable. Accordingly, the beneficiary’s devise was not reduced to his intestate share by statute.

The court’s analysis begs the question of whether the conclusion would have been the same if the probate proceeding had been contested. Although the witness’ testimony would be necessary if that were the case, the fact remains that absent a finding of undue influence, the will and the bequest itself would be valid pursuant to the laws of the jurisdiction in which it was executed. However, if any allegations of undue influence had been made, such claims would call into question the validity of the instrument in Ontario, Canada, and thus, undermine two of the bases for Surrogate Holzman’s decision. 

Consequently, it appears that the applicability of EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1) in the case of wills executed outside of this jurisdiction is

 

highly fact sensitive and must be determined on a case by case basis.

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.

Due Execution

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]).

Testamentary Capacity

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]).

Undue Influence

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 [1877])., 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.