Family Ties Do Not Create A “Confidential Relationship” Sufficient To Invalidate A Will Based On Undue Influence

The concept of what constitutes a “confidential relationship” (one of the elements creating a presumption of undue influence) was examined by the New Jersey Appellate Division in Matter of the Estate of Jewell B. Sykes, N.J. App. Div. No. A-1109-09T2 (Aug. 19, 2010).

In Sykes, the decedent’s daughter/co-executor (“Evelyn”) challenged the validity of two leases her mother had entered into with a company that was owned by the decedent’s son/co-executor (“Gerald”). Notably, Gerald lived with the mother from 1976 until she entered a nursing home in 1992; later, during the course of the mother’s Medicaid application, the Board of Social Services had determined that Gerald qualified as a “caregiver child” for at least two years prior to her institutionalization. Slip op. at 7. The leases were executed in 1981 and 1986. Slip op. at 3. Although Gerald had been represented by an attorney and the mother had not, Gerald’s attorney retained another lawyer in 1988 to meet with the mother and confirm that she had entered into the leases of her own free will. Slip op. at 5.

Following trial, the lower court rejected Evelyn’s claims that the decedent-mother lacked capacity to enter into the leases, and that the leases were the product of undue influence. Slip op. at 11-12.

After rejecting Evelyn’s challenge regarding the decedent’s capacity to enter into the leases, the appellate court considered Evelyn’s claim of undue influence. Slip op. at 12. In particular, Evelyn argued that there was adequate proof of a “confidential relationship” between the decedent and Gerald “by virtue of the ‘natural relationship between mother and son living together, with [the] son caring for [the] mother and managing her financial affairs.’” Slip op. at 12. The appellate court refused to accept such an expansive view of the “confidential relationship” element of the claim:

Although parent-child relationships are “among the most natural of confidential relationships … the mere existence of family ties does not create … a confidential relationship… The record is devoid of evidence that Gerald occupied a position of dominance over [the mother] and, indeed, Evelyn relies upon the familial relationship rather than citing any evidence on appeal to support that conclusion.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division determined that Evelyn failed to meet her burden of establishing the existence of a confidential relationship, and affirmed the trial court’s decision in favor of Gerald.

A copy of the decision can be found here – Matter of the Estate of Jewell B. Sykes.