Although a Confidential Relationship and Suspicious Circumstances Existed, Court Found No Undue Influence

In this will contest, plaintiffs were named as residuary beneficiaries in the Last Will and Testament which the decedent, Charles W. Winter, Jr., executed in 1999. Plaintiffs were all cousins of the decedent. The three defendants also shared close personal and/or family relationships with the decedent. In a new Last Will and Testament executed on February 7, 2013, decedent substituted defendants as residuary beneficiaries of his estate in place of plaintiffs. Just four months later, on June 13, 2013, decedent passed away.

In December 2013, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the 2013 Will based on defendants’ alleged undue influence over Mr. Winter. Discovery was conducted over many months. Written discovery was served and answered, depositions taken and expert reports submitted.

In June 2015, plaintiffs filed a motion for leave to amend the complaint to add new claims of mistake, lack of testamentary capacity, and forgery. Defendants then filed motions for summary judgment, and plaintiffs filed a cross-motion, seeking to shift the burden of proof to defendants on the issue of undue influence.

The trial court judge denied plaintiffs’ motion to amend the complaint, finding no evidence that Winter lacked testamentary capacity when he executed the Will, and no evidence of mistake or fraud. With regard to the summary judgment motions, the judge found there was no confidential relationship between Winter and defendants and nothing to suggest there were suspicious circumstances. As a result, the judge concluded that Winter was not under any undue influence when he executed the Will. Plaintiffs appealed the orders granting summary judgment and denying plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file an amended complaint to add additional claims.

The appeals court affirmed both of the trial court’s orders. With regard to the motion to amend the complaint to add additional claims, the appeals court found the plaintiffs had presented no evidence supporting the additional claims they wanted to assert. For example, although plaintiffs said they relied on the reports submitted by their experts to prove the decedent lacked testamentary capacity, the court found that the experts did not declare that Winter lacked testamentary capacity at the time he signed the Will, but opined only that he “had diminished capacity and was subject to undue influence due to his severe disabilities.”

With regard to the order granting summary judgment, the appeals court found, contrary to the trial judge, that there was, in fact, a confidential relationship between Winter and defendants because defendants had close familial and personal relationships with Winter, and he trusted them and depended on them during his illness to assist with his affairs. The appeals court also found suspicious circumstances, as defendants were present when Winter called his attorney to the hospital to prepare the 2013 will. Surprisingly, however, the appeals court did not find that the decedent was unduly influenced by defendants even though a confidential relationship and suspicious circumstances existed. The court held that “[T]here was no evidence of coercion or mental, moral, or physical exertion of any kind by defendants that destroyed Winter’s free will… Winter was lucid when he executed the Will and the decision to do so was his and his alone. The Will reflected Winter’s intent as to the disposition of his assets, and there is no evidence to the contrary. The preponderance of the evidence reveals undue influence did not taint the Will.”

As a result, the appeals court held that summary judgment was properly granted.

The Winter case is attached here – Matter of Winter