In this case the Surrogate’s Court considered whether the petitioners presented sufficient evidence of undue influence for the court to declare a will invalid. When J. Malone passed away, a petition to probate her will was filed. Several relatives, collectively the objectants, filed objections contesting the validity of the will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity, lack of due execution, and undue influence.
Under New York law, once a petition for probate is filed with the Surrogate’s Court, any interested party has the right to file an objection to probate. However, the objecting party must state the basis for his (or her) objection. Common grounds include lack of testamentary capacity, lack of due execution, undue influence, duress, and fraud. Merely stating the basis for the objection is not enough. The objectant must also provide evidence, either direct or inferential, of the existence of the basis for the objection.
In Malone, the petitioners moved for summary judgment dismissing all objections. The objectants only opposed summary dismissal to the objection related to undue influence. Thus, the Surrogate’s Court examined whether there was any evidence, direct or circumstantial, to support the objectants’ claim that J. Malone had been subjected to undue influence when she made her will.
Undue influence exists when another person’s influence is so pervasive that the will made by the testator reflects the wishes of the influencer and not of the testator. It is more than simple influence that one person might have over another person. It is also more than someone merely asking a testator to be remembered in his will. The court points out that undue influence occurs when the influence becomes so pervasive that it is “moral coercion,” constraining the testator from acting out of his own free will.
It is difficult to prove the existence of undue influence by direct evidence. As a result, objectants typically relay on circumstantial evidence. In Malone, the objectants argued that undue influence could be inferred by the radical change in the will after the alleged influencer began spending time with the decedent. Courts have found undue influence based on a testator making changes in a will that were so unnatural and so unusual that it only made sense that undue influence or some other type of fraud was involved. The court did not find this to be the case in Malone.
The court did find that the alleged influencer did have the opportunity to influence the testator, as he was the person who drove her to chemotherapy and radiation treatments which left her in a weakened state. However, there was no evidence that the alleged influencer actually exerted undue influence over her. The objectants point to how the decedent’s last will differs from her prior will. The court found that while the testator did change her will, the changes did not directly benefit the alleged influencer, were not significant, and were far from unnatural. The decedent changes the residuary clause in her will to leave small portions to the alleged influencer’s children and grandchild, who were also relatives of the decedent. The court also noted that the alleged influencer did not have control over the testator’s finances, was not present when the will was discussed, and was not present when the will was executed.
Oftentimes when relatives are unhappy or surprised by the contents of a will or when there is animosity between family members, they feel that there must have been some “funny business” involved in the making of a will. However, objectants must have evidence to back their claims. Otherwise, the court will dismiss the objections.