Will contests are by nature acrimonious. While some are based on legitimate concerns supported by actual or circumstantial evidence, others are based on long-standing family disputes. However, just because there is family discord does not mean that the objections to a will are not valid. Regardless of the impetus for filing a will contest, the Surrogate’s Court will not allow a full hearing on objections to a will unless there is a legitimate basis as well as evidence. The grounds for a will contest include improper execution, mental incapacity, undue influence, duress, and fraud.
In the Will of Djavaheri-Saatchi, while the objectant provides 5 legal grounds for challenging the will, another reason for the will contest may lie in family history. The proponent of the will, the daughter of the decedent, provided evidence that the decedent had decided to disinherit the objectant several years prior to the execution of the will at issue. Apparently, the reason was due to the actions by the objectant’s mother. The decedent was upset with the objectant’s mother because he believed that she stole property from him. Also, the decedent disinherited the objectant because she would be entitled to property in Iran. Instead, he decided to leave his entire estate to the proponent of the will.
Of course, being disinherited is not a legal ground for a will contest. The objectant made specific allegations of actions that point to the will not being a true representation of the decedent’s wishes. The objectant argued that the will was not properly executed, that the decedent lacked the mental capacity required to execute a will, that there was undue influence, that the decedent was under duress, and that fraud was involved. Underlying all of her arguments is an allegation that the proponent manipulated the decedent into disinheriting the objectant and leaving his estate to herself. The proponent responded to the objections by filing a motion for summary judgement, arguing that the objectant failed to raise a triable issue of fact with regard to the execution of the will, the testator’s mental capacity, or the existence of undue influence, duress, or fraud. Thus, as a matter of law, the proponent should prevail.
The court agreed with the proponent’s motion for summary judgement with respect to the allegations regarding improper execution, fraud, and duress. With respect to the objection related to improper execution, the objectant pointed to evidence that it was not the testator who made arrangements for his will to be drafted and executed, but it was the proponent. The proponent was the one who contacted the attorney and met with the attorney. The objectant alleged that the testator was only minimally involved in the meetings to discuss the estate plan. The court noted that these arguments were not pertinent to whether the will was properly executed, but to whether there was undue influence. Further, the court noted that the proponent produced evidence that the will was properly executed. The will contained both an attestation clause and a self-proving affidavit. These elements give rise to a presumption that the statutory requirements for proper execution were satisfied. In addition, the attesting witnesses’ testimony and the testimony of the attorney draftsman supported the proponent’s position that the will was properly executed.
As for the allegation of fraud, the objectant failed to meet her burden of proof. The law requires that to prove fraud, the objectant must show that a false statement was made to the testator, and as a result, the testator made a will that included dispositions that he would not have made but for the fraudulent statement. The objectant submitted only conjecture to prove fraud. The court also found that the objectant failed to submit any evidence to meet her burden of proof on duress.
On the other hand, the court found that there were disputed issues of fact with respect to mental capacity and undue influence. The objectant had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and there was evidence that even the proponent questioned some of the decedent’s actions. In addition, the objectant produced testimony from the decedent’s property manager that the decedent feared the proponent and that she bullied him. Further, the property manager testified that the proponent instructed him not to share information with the objectant.
The court found that there were questions related to the testator’s mental condition, to the proponent’s actions with respect to the decedent, and whether the decedent was susceptible to undue influence based on the proponent’s behavior. Thus, the court denied the proponent’s motion for summary judgement on the issues of mental capacity and undue influence.
Note that winning a summary judgement motion does not mean that the objectant will ultimately prevail and that probate will be denied. It means that the court determined that there should be a full hearing on the issues related to mental capacity and undue influence.