On May 21, 2017, at age 86, decedent E. Lowell Dorris passed away testate. He was survived by 4 nieces and a nephew. However, in his will, he named Luis Freddy Molano as his sole beneficiary. The value of the estate was around $350,000. The decedent’s four nieces initiated a will contest, alleging undue influence. Benjamin Robinson, the executor and also the attorney who drafted the will, requested that the court dismiss the objection of the nieces.
A court will not allow a will that was made under undue influence to be probated. Thus, if the nieces prevailed and the will was found to be invalid, the court would either probate a prior valid will or the court would declare the decedent to be intestate. If the decedent is intestate and the nieces are the decedent’s intestate heirs, the nieces would share in the decedent’s estate.
Undue influence means that the testator drafted a will because someone illegally influenced them to do so. In other words, the terms of the will do not reflect the wishes of the testator, but the wishes of the influencer. The following circumstances tend to show the existence of undue influence:
- The decedent left property in a way that was not “natural.” In other words, the decedent’s next of kin did not inherit.
- There was a “confidential relationship” between the testator and the influencer. This means that the testator and alleged influencer had a relationship of trust.
- The testator was susceptible to undue influence. This typically happens where the testator is physically ill or in mental decline and is reliant on the influencer or where the testator is isolated from family and friends.
- The influencer took advantage of the testator and as a result, benefited.
Note that just because a person is in a confidential relationship does not always mean that undue influence is present. There must be evidence that the person actually took advantage of the testator and manipulated them. Evidence of this is usually that the terms of the will are not natural and are inconsistent with the testator’s past testamentary plan.
In Dorris, Molano did not deny that he had a confidential relationship with the decedent. However, he adamantly denied that he manipulated the decedent to change his will and denied even knowing the contents of the will. In fact, the movant presented evidence supporting the validity of the will. First, as the attorney-draftsman of not only the submitted will, but also of the decedent’s 6 prior wills, the movant asserts that he had no doubt that the decedent had testamentary capacity when he executed the submitted will.
The movant further supports his position that the will is valid by pointing out that the will is consistent with the decedent’s decades long testamentary plan. In each of the 6 prior wills that he executed over a span of 19 years, the decedent named Molano as a beneficiary. On the other hand, the nieces were not a consistent part of his testamentary plan. In fact, the decedent included only one of the nieces in any of his prior wills. In that instance, the niece was not a primary beneficiary, but a contingent beneficiary. Thus, it is consistent with his plan for them to be excluded.
The nieces argued that evidence of undue influence was the large increase in the amount of money the decedent left Molano in the final will as compared to the prior wills. The movant responded with a logical reason for the increase. In the last few years before he died, the decedent’s financial situation had changed significantly for the better due to the death of the person with whom he co-owned real estate.
Ultimately, the Surrogate’s Court was not persuaded by the objectants and dismissed their objection to probate.