In this case the Surrogate’s Court had to consider issues related to a contested guardianship under Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 and invalidating a property conveyance by the person who is the subject of the guardianship. Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 provides that upon petition, the Surrogate’s Court can appoint a guardian to handle the personal and/or financial affairs of a person who has been found to be incapacitated and would suffer harm in the absence of a guardianship.
Here, it was discovered that R. Nurse transferred 50% ownership in real property to his stepson, Dacres. R. Nurse’s biological children, M. Nurse and H. Nurse, stepped in and petitioned the court to be appointed co-guardians of R. Nurse. They also requested that the court void the transaction that conveyed R. Nurse’s property to Dacres. At the hearing, evidence was produced that confirmed that R. Nurse had dementia. Further, there was clear evidence that R. Nurse was incompetent at the time that he signed the deed and that he was subject to undue influence. Thus, the court voided the deed and granted the petition of M. Nurse and N. Nurse to be appointed co-guardians. Dacres appealed.
In ruling in favor of the petitioners, the court noted that the general rule is that it is assumed that a person is competent. The burden is on the petitioner to prove with clear evidence that the party is not competent. When it comes to voiding a property conveyance, the burden is on the petitioner to show that the party was not competent at the time of the conveyance.
The court pointed out that a diagnosis of dementia is not enough to show that someone is not competent enough to execute a valid deed. The petitioner must show that R. Nurse was incompetent at the time that the transaction was completed such that he did not understand the nature of the transaction. The petitioners produced expert testimony that at the time that R. Nurse executed the deed he suffered from dementia and major vascular neurocognitive disorder. Together these conditions made him wholly incompetent and incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions. Consequently, the court appropriately determined that the deed was invalid on the ground of incompetence.
As for the petitioner’s allegation that the respondent exerted undue influence over R. Nurse, because it has been established that there was a confidential relationship between R. Nurse and Dacres, the beneficiary of the contested transaction, the burden is on Dacres to show that the transaction was fair and free from undue influence. However, Dacres failed to produce credible evidence that the transaction was fair and free from undue influence. In fact, Dacres’ evidence was the opposite- contradictory and incredible. Accordingly, the court’s determination that the deed was invalid on the ground of undue influence was proper.