Under section 3-1.1 of the EPTL, a person has the capacity to make a will if they are at least 18 years of age and “are of sound mind and memory.” A person is considered of sound mind and memory if they have the ability to understand:
- the nature and extent of their property;
- the natural objects of their bounty (i.e., their family members and other beneficiaries);
- the disposition they are making of their property; and
- the consequences of their actions.
A person who is unable to understand these things due to a mental disability or disease, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, may still have the necessary capacity to make a will if they have sufficient lucidity at the time of executing the will to understand these things.
The Matter of Estate of Frieda Schreiber is a 2020 New York Surrogate Court case that dealt with the issue of whether a decedent’s will should be invalidated due to allegations of undue influence and lack of capacity. This case is important because it highlights the importance of ensuring that a testator has the necessary mental capacity and was not subjected to any undue influence when creating a will.
The case involved the will of Frieda Schreiber, a woman who died in 2018 at the age of 92. Ms. Schreiber had executed her will in 2014, leaving her entire estate to her niece, Linda Schreiber. However, after Ms. Schreiber’s death, her sister and a nephew filed a petition with the Surrogate’s Court initiating a will contest, claiming that Linda had unduly influenced Ms. Schreiber and that Ms. Schreiber lacked the mental capacity to execute a valid will.
The Surrogate’s Court held a trial to determine the validity of Ms. Schreiber’s will. The court heard testimony from several witnesses, including medical experts and family members. The medical experts testified that Ms. Schreiber suffered from dementia and had a history of depression and anxiety. They also stated that Ms. Schreiber had difficulty with memory, judgment, and decision-making. However, the experts disagreed on whether Ms. Schreiber had the necessary mental capacity to execute a will.
The court also heard testimony from family members who alleged that Linda had exerted undue influence on Ms. Schreiber to persuade her to change her will. They claimed that Linda had isolated Ms. Schreiber from other family members, controlled her access to medical care, and pressured her to change her will.
After considering all of the evidence presented, the court found that Ms. Schreiber lacked the mental capacity to execute a valid will. The court determined that Ms. Schreiber did not understand the nature and extent of her property, nor did she comprehend the natural objects of her bounty, including her family members. The court also found that Ms. Schreiber did not have the capacity to understand the consequences of her actions.
In addition, the court found that Linda had exerted undue influence on Ms. Schreiber to persuade her to change her will. The court found that Linda had isolated Ms. Schreiber from other family members and had taken control of her medical care. The court also found that Linda had pressured Ms. Schreiber to change her will, and that Ms. Schreiber had acquiesced to Linda’s demands due to her weakened mental state.
Based on these findings, the court invalidated Ms. Schreiber’s will and awarded her estate to her closest surviving relatives, her sister and nephew. The court also ordered Linda to repay the estate for any assets she had received under Ms. Schreiber’s will.
This case highlights the importance of ensuring that a testator has the necessary mental capacity and is not subject to any undue influence when creating a will. When a testator lacks the mental capacity to understand the nature and extent of their property, or the consequences of their actions, their will may be invalidated. Similarly, when a testator is subjected to undue influence, such as coercion, manipulation, or pressure from another person, their will may also be invalidated.
This case also illustrates the importance of having a comprehensive estate plan that takes into account the potential for disputes among family members. In this case, the dispute over Ms. Schreiber’s will resulted in a costly and time-consuming legal battle. By creating a comprehensive estate plan that addresses potential conflicts, a testator can help ensure that their wishes are carried out and that their estate is distributed according to their wishes.