Decedent M. Bach executed a will in 1977 that named as beneficiaries her two sisters who were living at the time, and the surviving son of a third sister, Haber. The will also provided that if either of the sisters predeceased her, then her share would go to Metzger, the daughter of one of those sisters.
In 1977, Bach fractured her hip bone. Haber, who was a college professor, quit his job to attend to Bach’s affairs full time. She executed a power of attorney naming Haber as his agent and transfer control of her financial accounts to joint accounts with him. Haber also assisted Bach in finding nursing homes in which lived until her death in 1984.
In 1981 Haber drafted a new will that named him as the executor of the estate and as Bach’s sole heir. Bach’s sisters had passed away by that time, but Metzger had not, and she was not named in the new will. If the will was not changed, then Metzger would be entitled to the deceased sisters share of Bach’s estate.
Upon Bach’s death, Metzger objected to probating the 1984 will. As the proponent of the will, Haber asserted that Bach changed the will in his favor because he was the only relative who cared for her after her accident. The Surrogate’s Court found in favor of Haber. Metzger appealed.
Generally speaking, when there is an allegation of undue influence, the burden is on the objectant to show that the proponent did manipulate the decedent to write a will that he or she would not have otherwise written. However, when the proponent of the will had a confidential relationship with the decedent, the burden is on the proponent to offer a reasonable explanation for the bequest other than undue influence. A confidential relationship means that there is a unique degree of intimacy, confidence, and trust between the parties, one of whom has superior knowledge, skill or expertise and is under a duty to represent or care for the interests of the other. In order to prevent the person with the superior knowledge, skill, or experience to take advantage of the situation, that person must exhibit the utmost degree of good faith in all transactions between the parties. Examples of confidential relationships include caregiver-patient, physician-patient, guardian-ward, and attorney-client.
Here, because Haber had Bach’s power of attorney and took care of her affairs, the jury could have found that a confidential relationship did exist between Bach. The fact that Haber gave the explanation that the reason Bach changed her will to favor him was because he was the only family member that cared for her merely created a question of fact for the jury as to whether his explanation was adequate. Because the court erred in removing the question of undue influence by Haber, Metzger’s motion is granted and there must be a new trial held on this issue only.
If the jury determines that there was undue influence, the court will declare the will invalid and will not admit it to probate. Instead, the court will probate the prior will.