When Helen Weste died in 2010, she was divorced with no children.

In 1994, she had executed a will leaving her estate to charities and nieces and nephews.

In 2001, Helen’s health began to fail. In April 2002, family members contacted her ex-husband (who was agent under her power of attorney), and he flew in from Florida to see her and had her admitted to a hospital. At the time, a psychiatric evaluation was performed, which concluded that Helen’s insight and judgment were poor and that she was unable to care for herself as a result of dementia. In June 2002, she was transferred from the hospital to an assisted living facility, where she remained until her death. In July, after her ex-husband died, her niece Joanne Halkovich was appointed her guardian.

In February 2002, Helen had contacted an attorney, Victor Padlo, Esq., to schedule an appointment. Her friend John Brek (“Brek”) drove her to the appointment, although he had no association with the attorney and no prior knowledge of the reason for the meeting. During the meeting, Helen gave Mr. Padlo a hand-written document that he later testified was essentially a holographic will. Padlo interviewed Helen alone and had no doubt about her testamentary capacity, although in other cases he had declined to prepare estate documents for others based upon his assessment of their capacity. Padlo prepared a will for Helen, and in March 2002 she returned to his office and executed the will. It left specific bequests to charity and to her niece Louise Ogletree, and 90% of her residuary estate to Brek. Brek was named executor.

Following Helen’s death, niece Joanne Halkovich (“Joanne”) was originally appointed administratrix CTA of the 1994 will. However, in October 2011, Brek filed a complaint seeking to probate the 2002 will which named him as executor.

Joanne opposed Brek’s complaint, claiming lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. Expert witnesses provided conflicting testimony as to Helen’s capacity in 2002.

Following a chancery court hearing, Hon. Frank M. Ciuffani issued a written opinion, concluding that the evidence did not clearly and convincingly establish lack of testamentary capacity. He also rejected Joanne’s claim of undue influence, finding no evidence to support the claim. Judge Ciuffani admitted the 2002 will to probate and appointed Brek as executor.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed Judge Ciuffani’s decision. It noted that appellate review of the findings of a judge in a non-jury trial is limited and that,

[i]n particular, the findings of the trial judge on the issues of testamentary capacity and undue influence, though not controlling, are entitled to great weight since the trial court had the opportunity of seeing and hearing the witnesses and forming an opinion as to the credibility of their testimony.

The appellate court noted the general presumption that a testator is of sound mind and competent when he or she executed a will, and that every person has the right to dispose of his/her estate as he or she sees fit. It found no basis to conclude that Judge Ciuffani’s factual findings and credibility assessments were contrary to the interests of justice.

A copy of In the Matter of the Estate of Weste can be found here – Matter of the Estate of Weste

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