Trust, Estates & Taxation attorneys win summary judgment in a contested probate proceeding.

February 19, 2013 | Trusts & Estates

Jeffrey Greener, John McFaul and Christopher Miehl, members of the firm’s Trusts, Estates & Taxation Practice Group won on summary judgment in a contested probate proceeding, more commonly known as a Will Contest, in the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court. In New York State, a Will of a deceased person is given legal effect only after it is admitted to probate by the Court. Thus, the successful motion gave the contested Will legal effect and allowed the distribution of a multimillion dollar estate to the Will’s beneficiaries. 

As is the case with most Will Contests, there were four issues before the Court: (1) Did the Testator have mental capacity to make the Will; (2) was the Will signed in accordance with the legal formalities of New York law; (3) was the Will caused by fraud; and (4) was the Will the product of undue influence upon the Testator. 

Our firm’s client, as the proponent of the Will, had the burden of proving the first two issues to the Court.  For a person to have the mental ability to make a Will, it must be shown that she understood the purpose and effect of a Will, knew what property she owned, and knew who her nearest relatives were. The burden of proving that a Will was properly signed is met by showing that the Will was signed by the Testator in the presence of two witnesses and that the each witness signed the Will in the presence of the Testator and the other witness. 

While proving capacity and proper execution may be difficult, our client benefitted from several legal presumptions that are unique to probate proceedings. These presumptions made it easier to make her case on the issues of capacity and execution. When the signing of a Will is supervised by an attorney, as it was in our case, New York State law presumes that the Testator had sufficient mental capacity to make a Will and that the signing of the Will adhered to the formalities of New York Law.  These presumptions were further bolstered by the fact that the Will contained a “Self-Proving Affidavit.” In this type of Affidavit, the attesting witnesses represent that the Testator had sufficient mental capacity to make a Will, the Will was properly signed, and that the Testator freely and voluntarily signed the Will. 

Having met our burden on these issues, it was then up to our adversary to offer proof to the contrary. In its decision the Court determined that our adversary failed to do this, and the Court dismissed our adversary’s objections regarding capacity and execution. 

Our adversary then had the burden of proof on the remaining two issues: fraud and undue influence. 

To establish fraud, the objecting party must demonstrate that false statements were made to the Testator that caused her to make a Will that disposed of her property differently than she otherwise would have done. Undue influence is more nebulous and even courts have difficulty describing it succinctly. To prove undue influence, the objecting party must show that the Testator was improperly influenced to such an extent that the resulting Will does not represent her actual wishes, but those of the person exercising the influence. 

In its decision, the Court found that our adversary failed to offer sufficient proof on the issues of fraud and undue influence. As a result, the Court dismissed those objections as well and ? with no remaining objections to the Will ? admitted the Will that our client offered for probate.

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