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Will Contests

Posted Monday, February 15, 2016 by John S. Palmer

The Washington Supreme Court has affirmed a trial court’s decision to invalidate a will because it was procured by undue influence. In doing so, it clarified that an appellate court’s role in will contests is to determine whether the trial court’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, and not to reweigh the evidence.

Estate of Barnes (decided January 28, 2016) involved a will challenged by the nieces and nephews of Eva Barnes, who died in 2011 at the age of 94. In her final years, Eva befriended Michelle Wells, her rural mail carrier. Wells eventually became Eva’s caretaker and attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney. Eva’s final will left her estate to Wells and her husband. Her nieces and nephews (who inherited under the old will) contested the new one on the grounds that it was procured by undue influence, defined under Washington law to mean “something more than mere influence, but rather influence which at the time of the testamentary act, controlled the volition of the testator, interfered in his free will, and prevented an exercise of his judgment and choice.”

The framework for determining whether a will is the result of undue influence was enunciated 78 years ago in Dean v. Jordan, which held that a will contestant bears the burden of proving undue influence by clear and convincing evidence. Once that burden is met, a presumption arises that the will is invalid, which must be rebutted by the will’s proponent. Dean also lists the facts which, if proved, support a presumption of undue influence:

The most important of such facts are (1) that the beneficiary occupied a fiduciary or confidential relation to the testator; (2) that the beneficiary actively participated in the preparation or procurement of the will; and (3) that the beneficiary received an unusually or unnaturally large part of the estate. Added to these may be other considerations, such as the age or condition of health and mental vigor of the testator, the nature or degree of relationship between the testator and the beneficiary, the opportunity for exerting an undue influence, and the naturalness or unnaturalness of the will.

In Barnes the trial court found that the evidence was sufficient to find each of these factors were met. As Eva’s attorney-in-fact, Wells had a fiduciary relationship with Eva, whose was elderly and in declining health. She received an unnaturally large part of Eva’s estate in light of the fact that she was not a blood relative or long-time friend. And while driving Eva to her attorney’s office to sign the will was by itself not sufficient to prove Wells actively participated in procuring it, the Supreme Court said there was sufficient evidence to find that this was “the last act in Wells’ campaign to influence” Eva by alienating her from her family through a series of false statements about them, and by making it more difficult for them to have contact with each other.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, but the Supreme Court said it “exceeded the proper function of appellate review in these type of cases” by improperly “reweighing the evidence in favor of an alternative theory for upholding the will”:

This was error–the appellate court’s role is to review findings supporting the conclusions the trial court did reach, not to look for evidence supporting an alternate conclusion the court could have reached. Wells does not challenge any of the trial court’s findings or offer any evidence disputing the presence of the Dean factors, but selectively restates the trial court’s findings to support her alternative theory for Barnes’ will. While Wells’ story may be persuasive in isolation, we must defer to the weight given to all the evidence by the trial court and its credibility assessment that the facts Wells points to do not balance the scales against the overwhelming evidence of undue influence.

In addition to reinstating the trial court’s decision to invalidate the will, the Supreme Court ordered Wells and her husband to pay the nieces and nephews’ legal fees on appeal.

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