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Court rejects children’s allegations of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity. In re Burrows, No. 2022-01936 (N.Y. App. Div. Mar. 18, 2022)


Families often find themselves entangled in disputes over wills, particularly when claims of lacking testamentary capacity and undue influence arise. Such disagreements frequently arise due to differing interpretations of the deceased’s intentions or changes in familial dynamics. Courts, cognizant of the gravity of these allegations, meticulously assess each claim. To substantiate assertions of testamentary incapacity or undue influence, the court demands compelling evidence. The case of Burrows v. Burrows is an example of a situation where were such claims.

Background Facts

The case involved the contested estate of a deceased individual, referred to as the “decedent.” Marcia Burrows, as guardian of Ava Burrows and Audrey Burrows (the children), objected to the probate of the decedent’s will and sought to set aside the accompanying revocable trust, alleging lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. The Surrogate’s Court granted the petitioners’ motion for summary judgment, admitting the will to probate. The court considered witness testimonies, including the estate attorney and accountant, establishing the decedent’s lucidity during the will’s execution. It found the respondent’s claims lacked specificity and were speculative, leading to the dismissal of objections related to testamentary capacity and undue influence. Marcia Burrows appealed.


Did the decedent possess testamentary capacity at the time of executing the will, and was there evidence supporting the claim of undue influence?


The Surrogate’s Court granted the petitioner’s motion for summary judgment. This decision dismissed objections to the probate of the will and the petition to set aside the revocable trust. The court determined that the proponent had successfully demonstrated the decedent’s testamentary capacity and refuted claims of undue influence.


Testamentary Capacity. The court diligently applied the legal standards, emphasizing that testamentary capacity hinges on the decedent’s understanding of the will’s nature, the extent of property disposition, and recognition of natural beneficiaries. Notwithstanding the decedent’s terminal illness, the evidence presented, including affidavits and testimony, portrayed a clear state of mind. The court underscored that typical conditions associated with aging or illness do not automatically invalidate a will.

Petitioners satisfied their initial burden by presenting evidence, including the self-executing affidavit and SCPA 1404 hearing testimony of witnesses to the will’s execution. These witnesses, including the estate attorney, personal accountant, and longtime executive assistant, attested to the decedent’s lucidity despite his terminal illness. The court acknowledged the absence of cognitive decline, affirming that the decedent was fully competent, coherent, and aware when executing the will. The extensive discussions between the decedent and his advisors throughout the estate planning process further highlighted his active participation and understanding of the implications of his decisions.

In contrast, the respondent’s argument rested on the impact of the decedent’s terminal cancer and its treatment on his mental state. However, the court reiterated that bad health, in this context, does not automatically negate testamentary capacity. Respondent failed to substantiate claims of incompetence with concrete evidence, relying on speculative assertions rather than presenting medical or factual grounds to challenge the decedent’s capacity.

Undue Influence. Addressing the allegation of undue influence, the court clarified that the burden of proof rested on the respondent to demonstrate moral coercion or importunity that constrained the decedent’s free will. The petitioners successfully countered these allegations by presenting evidence indicating the surviving spouse’s passive role and the decedent’s clear intentions. The court emphasized the necessity of substantial evidence pinpointing alleged influence and rejected speculative contentions.

The court noted that the surviving spouse was asked to leave the room during the will’s discussion, highlighting a lack of direct involvement in the estate planning process. Testimony and affidavits from decedent’s advisors affirmed his active engagement and clarity of intent. Importantly, the court acknowledged decedent’s deliberate decision not to include the children in the will, as he had already provided for them in a separate trust.

Respondent’s assertions of undue influence lacked factual basis, relying on generalized beliefs rather than concrete evidence. The court dismissed the speculative nature of the claims, emphasizing the need for specific evidence identifying motives, opportunities, and acts constituting influence. The absence of such evidence rendered respondent’s position insufficient to raise a triable issue of fact.

Revocable Trust. The court drew parallels between the revocable trust and contract law, emphasizing the need to establish the decedent’s capacity. The petitioners successfully demonstrated the decedent’s contractual capacity through the estate attorney’s affirmation, affirming his ability to comprehend the trust’s provisions and the implications of his actions. Respondent’s challenge relied on speculative claims linked to the decedent’s health, failing to create a triable issue of fact.

Petitioners also met their initial burden in establishing that the revocable trust was not a product of undue influence. The court reiterated the requirement for evidence of substance, dismissing respondent’s speculative allegations lacking specificity. The absence of factual support for claims of undue influence further fortified the court’s decision in favor of the petitioners.

Confidential Relationship. The court rejected respondent’s cross motion for partial summary judgment seeking a declaration of a confidential relationship. Emphasizing the lack of evidence showcasing inequality or controlling influence, the court ruled that a familial relationship alone did not shift the burden of proof regarding undue influence.

The court highlighted the need for evidence demonstrating circumstances of inequality or controlling influence to establish a confidential relationship. Respondent’s failure to provide such evidence, coupled with the familial relationship between the surviving spouse and the decedent, counterbalanced any presumption of undue influence. The court underscored that a familial relationship, in itself, does not create a presumption of undue influence, requiring additional evidence of controlling dynamics.


In the intricate legal landscape of Burrows v. Burrows, the Surrogate’s Court meticulously navigated testamentary capacity challenges and allegations of undue influence. The decision to admit the will to probate and validate the revocable trust stands as a testament to the stringent evidentiary standards applied in estate litigation. This case serves as a notable illustration of the delicate balance between legal standards, familial dynamics, and the nuanced considerations inherent in estate planning disputes.

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