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Court Dismissed Will Contest Where There Was a Rational Explanation For “Unnatural” Disposition, Matter of Clapper, Sr. 279 A.D.2d 730 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001)


Two reasons for contesting a will are undue influence and fraud. Undue influence occurs when someone intentionally and illegally exerts influence over a testator such that the testator’s will reflects the intent of the influencer and not the testator. Typically, the influencer has a position of power over the testator who is vulnerable.  For example, a caregiver providing meals and personal care to a physically frail testator would be in a position to exert undue influence over the testator.

For a will to have been made based on fraud, someone must have knowingly made a false statement that caused the testator to execute a will that he or she would not have made but for the false statement.

In the Matter of Clapper, the decedent had two children:  a son and a daughter.  He named his daughter the executor of his estate and left her the bulk of his estate.  He left his son 1,000 loose pennies ($10.00).  Not surprisingly, the son was not pleased with his testamentary gift.  Convinced that his sister, the decedent’s daughter, must have somehow manipulated their father into essentially cutting him out of the will, the son initiated a will contest.  The son based his objections to the will on undue influence and fraud.  However, the Surrogate’s Court was not convinced by the son’s arguments and admitted the will to probate.  The son appealed.

The appeals court was also not convinced by the son’s position.  As for the claim of fraud, the son did not present evidence that the daughter knowingly made a false statement which resulted in the decedent changing his will.  Further, the daughter stated that she did not know the contents of the will prior to its execution.  The son did not present evidence to refute this claim.

Because there is rarely direct evidence of undue influence or fraud, litigants often rely on circumstantial evidence.  For example, if the will is a substantial departure from what would be considered the decedent’s natural testamentary plan, the court may conclude that the only reasonable explanation is that a person with motive and opportunity illegally influenced the testator.

In the Matter of Clapper, Sr., is was curious that the decedent left the son a bequest of only $10.00 in the form of 1000 pennies, while he left the daughter the rest of his estate.  Objectively, such a testamentary plan does appear to be unnatural.  Given that the daughter did have motive and opportunity to influence the father, that fact that she received so much more than the son could be interpreted as circumstantial evidence of undue influence.  As often is the case, the son’s relationship with his father was complicated.  The father and the son did not get along.  In fact, the son filed 4 lawsuits against the father, and the father petitioned the court to gain access to his grandchild—the son’s child. Given the acrimonious relationship between the son and the decedent, the testamentary plan, while a bit unorthodox, was arguably rational.  As a result, the son’s appeal of the dismissal of his objection to probate was upheld.

Complicated family dynamics can lead to probate litigation.  Family members sometime are convince that a there was fraud, undue influence, or coercion involved in a testamentary plan. While  the person may be correct, in order for a will contest to be successful, the objectant must present valid grounds for a will contest and must have actual or circumstantial evidence.

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