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Court grants summary judgment dismissal of objections to probate where the objectants are unable to show improper execution, lack of testamentary capacity, or undue influence – Estate of West v. West, 147 A.D.3d 592 (N.Y. App. Div., 2017)


In this case the Surrogate’s Court had to determine if a will should be invalidated due to improper execution, lack of testamentary capacity, and undue influence.  On October 19, 2015, the Surrogate’s Court entered the will of decedent L. West into probate. An objectant, P. West,  raised objections to the will, questioning its validity.  The respondent moved for summary judgment that the will was indeed valid. The court granted the respondent’s motion concluding that he had successfully proven that the will was duly executed.

When someone files a motion for summary judgment, he or she is asking the court to decide immediately that the based on the undisputed facts, he or she should win the case without it going to trial.  To prevail, the moving party has the burden of producing evidence that he or she is entitled to summary judgment.  If the moving party is able to do this, then the burden shifts to the non-moving party to rebut the moving party’s prima facie showing.

Here, the proponent of the will moved for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss the objectant’s claim that the will is was not properly executed. In support of his motion, the proponent of the will submitted the will’s attestation clause and the affidavit and testimony of the witnesses. Thus, the proponent proved that the will was duly executed.  The objectant did not successfully raise a triable issue of fact related to the will’s execution.

The proponent of the will also met the burden of proof verifying the decedent’s testamentary capacity when the will was executed.  For a testator to have testamentary capacity, at the time the will was executed, the testator must have understood what it meant to execute a will, the extent of his or her estate, and who his or her relatives were. The testimony of the witnesses and affidavit indicated that the decedent was of sound mind when the will was executed. In addition, hospital records from the day of execution indicate that the decedent was indeed lucid. She was not diagnosed with any mental incapacity such as dementia.  Again, the objectants were not able to raise a triable issue of fact related to the decedent’s mental capacity at the time she executed the will.

The objectants also claimed undue influence.  The principle of undue influence is where a person puts pressure on another in a way that holds legal significance. The concept often arises in the context of drafting a will or signing a contract. Often the influencer has an intimate or dependent relationship with the testator, which can create an opportunity for the influencer to put themselves in an advantageous position. This special relationship can include an attorney, close family member, caregiver, agent, etc.

The court dismissed the objectant’s undue influence claim because there was no evidence that the proponent took any action that could have caused the decedent to give her estate away that was inconsistent with her wishes. It was understood that the decedent was strong-willed and independent and would not easily be subjected to the undue influence of another person.

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