Testamentary Capacity, Undue Influence, and the Burden of Proof

January 27, 2016 § 4 Comments

A will contest can present a bewildering forest of legal issues that can entangle the best lawyers. So, any time we can find some clarification, it’s worth taking a break to look it over.

In the COA case of Estate of Phelps: Terry et al. v. Phelps, et al., handed down December 8, 2015, the court dealt with an appeal from a classic will challenge based on a claim of both lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.

The chancellor held that the testator, Dorothy Phelps, did have testamentary capacity. He also ruled that there was a confidential relationship between Dorothy and her son, Henry III, but that Henry had rebutted the presumption of undue influence by clear and convincing evidence. The contestants, Henry III’s siblings Irene Phelps Terry and Mary Phelps Domin, appealed.

The COA affirmed. Since this is a pretty useful recitation of the law, I am going to quote at length from the opinion. Judge Lee wrote for the court:

A. Testamentary Capacity

¶14. In their first issue, Irene and Vicki claim the chancellor erred in finding that Dorothy possessed testamentary capacity.

¶15. “For a will to be valid, the testator must possess testamentary capacity.” Noblin v. Burgess, 54 So. 3d 282, 291 (¶32) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). “For testamentary capacity to be present, the testator must be of ‘sound and disposing mind’ at the time of the will’s execution.” Id. (quoting Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-1 (Rev. 2004)). “At that time, the testator must: ‘understand and appreciate the nature and effect of his act of making a will, the natural objects or persons to receive his bounty and their relation to him, and be able to determine what disposition he desires to make of his property.’” Id. (quoting In re Estate of Mask, 703 So. 2d 852, 856 (¶17) (Miss. 1997)).

¶16. Our supreme court has explained the burden of proof on the issue of testamentary capacity is as follows:

At trial, the will’s proponents carry the burden of proof, which they meet by the offering and receipt into evidence of the will and the record of probate. A prima facie case is made by the proponent solely by this proof. Afterwards, although the burden of proof remains on the proponents, the burden of going forward with proof of testamentary incapacity shifts to the contestants, who must overcome the prima facie case. The proponents may then present rebuttal proof if necessary. In short, the proponents must prove the testator’s testamentary capacity by a preponderance of the evidence.

In re Estate of Rutland, 24 So. 3d 347, 351 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (quoting In re Estate of Edwards, 520 So. 2d 1370, 1372 (Miss. 1988)).

¶17. In the instant case, an objection to probate was entered prior to the will being admitted to probate.

¶18. Henry III made his prima facie case of the will’s validity through the testimony of Kay Ousley Hyer, Cordell’s [the lawyer who prepared the will] legal secretary at the time Dorothy’s will was executed. Although Hyer had no recollection of the events on February 10, 1988, Hyer testified that she would not have signed the will’s attestation clause if she felt, through her interactions with Dorothy on February 10, 1988, that Dorothy was not of sound and disposing mind and memory. When asked whether Cordell would have signed the attestation clause, Hyer stated: “He would not have affixed his signature if [Dorothy was] not of sound mind and body.”

¶19. To support their argument on this issue, both Irene and Vicki testified that Dorothy lacked testamentary capacity because of her grief over Henry II’s death and because of other medical issues.

¶20. However, “[t]he mere fact that someone is too ill to handle his affairs does not in and of itself render him . . . void of testamentary capacity.” In re Estate of Laughter, 23 So. 3d 1055, 1061 (¶22) (Miss. 2009). Furthermore, we recognize that “[t]he testimony of subscribing witnesses receives greater weight than the testimony of witnesses who were not present at the will’s execution.” In re Estate of McQueen, 918 So. 2d 864, 871 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Edwards, 520 So. 2d at 1373). Therefore, Hyer’s testimony is given more weight than the testimony of Irene and Vicki, who were not present at the will’s execution, did not interact with Dorothy on February 10, 1988, and have an interest in the outcome of this case.

¶21. Even if Irene and Vicki presented sufficient evidence to overcome Henry III’s prima facie case, we note that Henry III presented rebuttal evidence through the testimony of Flora Collins. Collins worked for Dorothy for approximately twenty-six years and interacted with Dorothy on an almost daily basis. Collins stated that Dorothy appeared to be herself, “like she’s always been,” after returning home from the hospital. Collins also stated that Dorothy told her about the will on two separate occasions: “She told me that I have a will and they’re going to be surprised who I’m going to leave everything to.” Additionally, we note that the will appears reflective of Dorothy’s intent in prior codicils. This issue is without merit.

B. Undue Influence

¶22. In their second issue, Irene and Vicki claim Henry III did not present sufficient evidence to overcome the presumption of undue influence.

1. Presumption of Undue Influence

¶23. A presumption of undue influence arises where: (1) a confidential relationship existed between the testator and a beneficiary, and (2) there existed suspicious circumstances—such as the testator’s mental infirmity—or the beneficiary in the confidential relationship was actively involved in some way with preparing or executing the will. In re Last Will & Testament of Bowling, 155 So. 3d 907, 910-11 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (citing Croft v. Alder, 237 Miss. 713, 115 So. 2d 683, 688 (1959)).

¶24. It is conceded that there was a confidential relationship between Dorothy and Henry III. However, the fact, alone, that a confidential relationship existed between Henry III and Dorothy is not sufficient to give rise to the presumption of undue influence. See In re Estate of Grantham, 609 So. 2d 1220, 1224 (Miss. 1992).

¶25. Nevertheless, in In re Estate of Harris, 539 So. 2d 1040 (Miss. 1989), our supreme court held that the presumption was raised with very little besides a confidential relationship. In re Last Will & Testament of Smith, 722 So. 2d 606, 612 (¶18) (Miss. 1998). In Harris, “the beneficiary simply found an attorney at the testator’s request and drove the testator to the attorney’s office.” Id.

¶26. The facts in the instant case are distinguishable from those in Harris. Henry III did not contact the attorney prior to the execution of the will. Nor did Henry III have knowledge that he was driving Dorothy to Hollandale for the purpose of executing a will. Henry III merely drove Dorothy to Hollandale on February 10, 1988, so she could “tend to some business.”

¶27. Furthermore, Henry III was not present during the execution of the will. Hyer testified as to Cordell’s usual practice with respect to allowing other people in the room during the execution of a will. Hyer stated: “I cannot recall a time that he would do that. It was always just the individual . . . It would be just between [Cordell and] that individual.”

¶28. In finding a presumption of undue influence, the chancellor noted Dorothy’s health and age. The chancellor also noted that after the will’s execution, the will was placed in a safety deposit box in both Dorothy and Henry III’s names; therefore, Henry III had the opportunity to view the will after its execution. The circumstances listed by the chancellor had nothing to do with the preparation and execution of the will or with Dorothy’s independent action.

¶29. The fact, alone, that a confidential relationship existed between Henry III and Dorothy is not sufficient to give rise to the presumption of undue influence. See Grantham, 609 So.2d at 1224. Henry III was not actively involved in preparing or executing the will, nor were there suspicious circumstances that negate independent action. See Dean v. Kavanaugh, 920 So. 2d 528, 537 (¶46) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). As such, the chancellor erred in finding that there was a presumption of undue influence. However, because we ultimately reach the same conclusion, this issue is without merit.

2. Overcoming the Presumption of Undue Influence

¶30. Even if there was a presumption of undue influence, Henry III presented sufficient evidence to overcome such a presumption.

¶31. Our supreme court has stated that:

[T]he presumption of undue influence is overcome if the beneficiary has proven by clear and convincing evidence:

(1) Good faith on the part of the beneficiary;

(2) the testator’s full knowledge and deliberation of his actions and their consequences; and

(3) independent consent and action on the part of the testator.

Grantham, 609 So. 2d at 1224 (citing Mullins v. Ratcliff, 515 So. 2d 1183 (Miss. 1987)).

¶32. In the instant case, the record contains sufficient evidence to satisfy each of these three prongs. With respect to the good-faith requirement, the chancellor considered the following factors: (a) the identity of the initiating party seeking preparation of the will; (b) the place of the execution of the will and in whose presence; (c) the fee paid; (d) by whom it was paid; and (e) the secrecy or openness surrounding the execution of the will. In re Estate of Holmes, 961 So. 2d 674, 682 (¶25) (Miss. 2007). The chancellor found that Dorothy initiated the preparation of the will, the terms of the will were discussed between Dorothy and Cordell outside the presence of others, and the will was executed before two attesting witnesses.[Fn 3] Although there was no evidence of the fee paid or who paid the fee, we agree there was clear and convincing evidence that Henry III acted in good faith.

[Fn3] See Rogers v. Pleasant, 729 So. 2d 192, 194 (¶9) (Miss. 1998).

¶33. With respect to the second requirement—that Dorothy had full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions—the chancellor considered the following factors: (a) whether Dorothy was aware of her total assets and their worth; (b) whether Dorothy understood who her natural inheritors were and how her action would legally affect prior wills; (c) whether Dorothy knew nonrelative beneficiaries would be included or excluded; and (d) whether Dorothy knew who controlled her finances and how dependent Dorothy was on anyone handling her finances. Holmes, 961 So. 2d at 684 (¶39). The chancellor found that the will gave each daughter not only a life estate in 320 acres of land but also exclusive control and possession of the income generated by that land, which was evidence that Dorothy was aware of her total assets. The chancellor also found that the revocation clause along with specific devises and bequests in the will was evidence that Dorothy understood who her natural inheritors were and how her action would legally affect prior wills. It is clear from prior documents that Dorothy never had any intention of including nonrelative beneficiaries. Finally, the chancellor found that there was evidence that Dorothy knew who controlled her finances. We agree there was clear and convincing evidence that Dorothy had full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions.

¶34. With respect to the last requirement, the chancellor found that Dorothy exhibited independent consent and action when she obtained independent advice from Cordell, who was a competent person, disconnected from Henry III, and devoted wholly to Dorothy’s interests. Holmes, 961 So. 2d at 680 (¶18). We agree there was clear and convincing evidence that Dorothy exhibited independent consent and action.

¶35. Assuming there was a presumption of undue influence, the presumption was overcome by clear and convincing evidence that Henry III acted in good faith, Dorothy had full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and Dorothy exhibited independent consent and action when she executed her will. This issue is without merit.

Some comments on this case next week.

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§ 4 Responses to Testamentary Capacity, Undue Influence, and the Burden of Proof

  • Hale says:

    Thanks, I will have to research it. This reminds of when Judge Keady taught a law school class on Admiralty. Any time someone asked a question he did not know exactly, he asked the students to prepare a brief on the issue fro the next class. Students stopped asking questions.

  • Hale says:

    I see from your summary the contestants filed a caveat before the will was probated, yet the burden shifted to the contestants. Apparently a caveat avoids the presumption that a will offered for probate is valid so the proponent had to offer proof that more than the mere filing of it with the clerk. What is that all there is to filing a caveat beyond that?

    • Larry says:

      Without researching it, I think you’re right about the presumption. As to proof of proper execution and capacity, that’s what the subscribing witness(es) provide.

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