Where There’s a Will . . .

A year after an 82-year-old Pennsylvania woman was admitted to nursing care, she changed her will. Her previous will had divided her
estate among her three daughters. The new will gave more than 90% of the estate to only one daughter.

The two daughters who were virtually eliminated as heirs discovered the new will and sued to have it declared illegal. The court initially found the mother to be incompetent due to early Alzheimer’s disease, but before the court could decide which will was valid, the mother passed away.

After taking testimony about the relationship of the mother and the daughter who was to receive 90% of the estate, the court found that the daughter had exerted an “overbearing influence” on the mother and on that basis declared the second will to be invalid. When a person of “weakened intellect” is pressured by a “strong predatory character” who has a close relationship to the weak person, the courts can set aside gifts or declare wills to be invalid.

A person who knows what he or she owns and who can identify his or her chosen heirs is competent to make a will. Some elderly people move in and out of competence—some days they can answer questions about their assets and heirs, and some days they cannot. If a person signs a will at a time of clear thinking, he or she is competent to make that will. But whether or not a person is competent at the time of signing is not the end of the inquiry when a will challenge is filed in court. Whenever a person of weakened intellect is controlled or influenced by another person, if the controlling person receives a benefit under the will, the will can be set aside.

In the case involving the 82-year-old woman, the testimony of all three daughters showed that their mother was of weakened intellect before she signed the second will. Her handwriting changed, and her letters to the daughters included incorrect punctuation and partial sentences. When her daughters took her on outings, she was unable to understand restaurant menus and would simply order what they chose even if she did not care for that type of food. She forgot how to play miniature golf and simply hit the ball in any direction. She was unable to manage her room key at
the nursing home, misplacing it unless she wore it around her neck. In one of her letters, she proposed marriage to one of her daughters.

The attorney who prepared the second will and who was present at the signing testified that the mother was of sound mind when she met with him. But he admitted that he did not know her prior to preparing the second will and that he was unaware of her other unusual behaviors. He acknowledged that the daughter who received 90% of the estate in the second will was present for the planning meeting and actually made the appointments for her mother to have the will prepared and signed.

The courts give great weight to wills and do not lightly set aside a properly executed will. But when potential heirs challenge a will, the court will listen to the testimony of witnesses who can describe the decedent and his or her relationships with the competing heirs. Where an heir is found to have exercised undue influence over a decedent of any age or circumstances, a will that benefits that heir can be rejected by the courts.

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