The proponents of the will are children of the decedent. When they sought to have the decedent’s will admitted to probate, an objection was filed on the grounds that the will had been procured by the proponent’s exerting undue influence over the decedent.
Undue influence exists when someone uses their position of trust with respect to a testator to illegally influence the testator to create a will they would not have otherwise made. Oftentimes undue influence occurs when the testator is vulnerable due to failing physical health or mental decline. In almost every case, the person who exerts the undue influence is a position of trust with respect to the testator such as being their caregiver or financial advisor. In fact, in Kotsones, the court cites Blase v. Blase, 148 A.D.3d 1777 (2017) by noting that it has been established that “where there was a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the beneficiary and the decedent, [a]n inference of undue influence arises which requires the beneficiary to come forward with an explanation of the circumstances of the transaction.”
The court noted that for a relationship to be confidential, there must be inequality in the relationship as well as a controlling influence. In other words, for there to be a confidential relationship that would allow for inference of undue influence, the circumstances must be such that the parties are not able to deal on terms of equality.
In Kotsones, the Appellate Division disagreed with the Surrogate’s Court and found that no confidential relationship existed between the proponents of the will and the decedent. The evidence presented showed that the proponents did in fact hold a position of trust with the decedent. One proponent assisted the decedent with her finances, while the other proponent was the decedent’s power of attorney. However, the evidence also showed that despite holding positions of trust, the decedent actively and personally managed her own affairs.
The decedent managed her real estate and drafted her estate plan. She also directed her personal attorney and the branch manager of her bank on what to do based on her own stated reasons. Several witnesses testified that the decedent gave the instructions on what to do and not the proponents. Thus, the objectant failed to meet his burden of proving that the proponents of the will had a confidential relationship such that the court must infer that there was undue influence.
Undue influence would also exist if the influencer exercised moral coercion such that the testator’s free will was destroyed. There was indeed evidence that both proponents of the will wanted to be named in the decedent’s will. However, that was not enough to show undue influence as there weas also proof that the decedent did exactly what she wanted to do. She had conversations with her attorney about revising her estate plan, gave reasons for wanting to do so, and directed her attorney to make the changes. In fact, the decedent’s attorney testified that the decedent was intimately involved in her affairs and that he did not do anything on her behalf without her direction and knowledge.
This case shows that to prove that a will is invalid based on undue influence, it is not enough that the alleged influencer had a relationship of trust with the decedent. It is also not enough that the alleged influencer may have asked the decedent to be made a beneficiary of their will. To prove undue influence, the objectant must show that the influencer used their position of trust to exert power over the testator or that the influencer substituted their free will for the testator’s. Neither of these things happened in Kotsones.