Undue Influence Claim Defeated Where Contestant Fails To Establish “Confidential Relationship,” But Fees Are Apportioned Based Upon Accounting Issues

In September 2010, I blogged about the Matter of the Estate of Jewell B. Sykes case, in which the Appellate Division concluded that family ties, without more, do not create a “confidential relationship.” That blog post can be found here.

In a February 16, 2012 decision in In the Matter of the Estate of John C. Dobish, Judge Harry G. Carroll, J.S.C. once again found that a will contestant failed to establish at trial that a “confidential relationship” existed which, coupled with “suspicious circumstances,” would have resulted in a presumption of undue influence.

In Dobish, the contesting brother contended that his sister had moved into their father’s home in 1989, “ensconced” herself in the home, and treated it as her own for at least twenty years. She cooked and cleaned for him. Their father lacked mobility, and the brother claimed that the father depended on the sister for “everything from medical and doctor appointments to food, and eventually succumbed to pressure from [the sister] to alter his estate plan….” (Slip op. at 6).

Nevertheless, the court noted that, although the sister had lived in the father’s home and tended to a “substantial portion” of his needs, “she did not do so to the exclusion of” her brother. She did not attempt to deny her brother access to their father. Consequently, the Court concluded that the brother failed to satisfy his burden of establishing a “confidential relationship,” because he failed to demonstrate that the sister had “exerted ‘over-mastering influence’ over her father or that her father was ‘weak and dependent.’” (Slip op. at 8).

The Court also addressed accounting issues raised by the brother, regarding the sister’s actions as agent under their father’s power of attorney and with regard to certain estate assets. It accepted the brother’s claims regarding certain transactions, and ordered the sister to repay the estate $9,625.75 in questionable expenditures.

The Court then addressed counsel fees. It found that, although the brother lacked a reasonable basis to challenge the father’s estate documents, the brother “enjoyed partial success” with respect to the accounting issues. Therefore, the Court awarded the brother 20% of his claimed fees, and deducted 20% of the sister’s claimed fees.

The Dobish case is annexed here – In the Matter of the Estate of John C. Dobish