A Strong Offense
A Stronger Defense
While it’s still rare for an undue influence case to make it to a jury, it seems that courts have been gradually loosening the requirements to allow more plaintiffs to present their cases to a jury. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of numbers as more aging Baby Boomers are beginning to succumb to “old age and physical and mental weakness,” which opens the door to an undue influence claim.
Whatever the reasons, we are seeing more appellate decisions involving plaintiffs having won undue influence claims at the trial court level. Earlier this month, in In the Matter of the Estate of Raney, the North Carolina Court of Appeals considered the appeal of a jury verdict in which a jury – after being presented with a lot of bad and good facts – concluded that the propounder of a will had exerted undue influence over the testatrix. In light of these mixed facts, the appellate court called it a “close” case.
Because these undue influence cases are fact intensive, let’s look at what a “close” undue influence case looks like.When Mary Rose W. Raney died, her daughter, Betty Jane Raney Meadows, filed a will for probate. John William Raney, Betty Jane’s brother, filed a caveat alleging lack of capacity and undue influence. The case ultimately went to a jury and a jury returned a verdict for the caveator. Here’s how the evidence broke down at trial:
- Testimony from a non-treating doctor that Tegretol, which was prescribed to the Testatrix, can have a disruptive effect on cognitive functions. Due to the Testatrix’s medical conditions (nerve infections, shingles, encephalitis) and the use of Tegretol, she would not have had the mental capacity to execute a will. The trial court refused to admit this testimony as expert testimony and instructed the jury to give it no more weight than a lay person’s testimony.
- Caveator testified about an altercation between him, his sister, and his sister’s husband where a verbal altercation escalated into his sister’s husband repeatedly striking him. At that point, the Caveator “discharged a firearm into the air three times.”
- Testimony from the Testatrix’s 73-year-old nephew that when he visited the Testatrix at the Propounder’s home, the Testatrix was not capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation. Also, during conversations, the Propounder actively told the Testatrix how to answer questions. The nephew also testified that on numerous occasions he had tried to visit the Testatrix at the Propounder’s home without success.
- Testimony from the attorney who prepared the contested will that he had no concern for the Propounder’s desires when he drafted the will. Propounder was just a facilitator to get the Testatrix to his office. The lawyer’s problem, however, was that he had no actual recollection of the meeting when the will was executed, so he could only speak to his “normal practices and procedures when executing a will.” He testified that he could not “say for certain . . . [if] part of [the discussion about the execution of the will] or perhaps most all of it was had with Propounder and not with [the Testatrix].”
- Testimony from the Testatrix’s treating physician that he did not recall any diagnosis of mental deficiency for the time period four years before to three years after the execution of the will. He did testify that the Testatrix exhibited an “altered mental status” 6 months before the will was executed but further testified that the Testatrix had returned to “normal baseline status” about a month before the will was executed.
- Propounder testified that the Caveator did not generally visit the Testatrix, and that the Propounder and Caveator had a hostile relationship. She claimed that the Caveator discharged the shotgun at her husband. The Propounder testified that when the Testatrix lived with her, Testatrix cooked and took care of herself. She further testified that she did nothing to assist in the procurement of the will other than to drive the Testatrix to the lawyer’s office.
- Propounder’s daughter testified that the Testatrix watched her children and that she believed the Testatrix was competent.
The Court of Appeals determined that the jury was entitled to find for the Caveator based on the following:
- Propounder had a confidential relationship with the Testatrix (through a power of attorney);
- The will being propounded gave the Propounder a lot more prooperty than the prior will;
- There were numerous instances of delusional behavior with one incident occurring within 3 months of the execution of the will;
- Testatrix was mentally and physically weak at the time she signed the Will; and
- Caveator and Propounder (and her husband) were not on good terms – a dispute came to blows and gunshots – thus, while there was nothing to suggest that Caveator was barred from seeing Testatrix, visiting was potentially dangerous.
This case once again dealt with the issues of medical records. Medical records are a powerful tool in a lack of capacity or undue influence case, but lawyers frequently don’t know what to do with them. So, they just make a blanket hearsay objection, which does not work and the records come in. Are there ways to get around the hearsay objections for the party offering the records? Sure if they do it correctly, but as these cases demonstrate the lawyers for the party offering and the party objecting to the medical records could stand to better prepare for getting them in – or trying to keep them out of – evidence.