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Estate Administration: Will Contests

Estate Administration:  What's in a Will Contest Series

Something Smells Funny

Will Contests - Part One: Lack of Capacity

In 2011, 104 year old copper heiress Hugette Clark died, leaving an estate worth approximately 300 million dollars. Ms. Clark's circumstance was unique, not only because of her outrageous wealth, but because of how she lived out the last twenty years of her life. In 1991, while she was in her mid-eighties, Ms. Clark entered Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Although her stay was medically necessary for a time, after she recovered, Ms. Clark appeared to enjoy the hospital so much that she decided to stay. For twenty years. Ms. Clark resided as somewhat of a recluse in the Beth Israel Medical Center from 1991 until her death in 2011. During her stay, Ms. Clark was dutifully, albeit perhaps not selflessly, tended to by doctors, nurses and hospital staff, to whom she gave hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of lavish gifts.

In March 2005, when Ms. Clark was 98 years old, she executed a will, which left her entire multimillion dollar estate to her blood relatives, even though, as she was so old and had been living in a hospital for over a decade, her living relatives were quite distant. Just six weeks later, however, Ms. Clark revoked that will and signed a new one, this time completely excluding her relatives. Citing the fact that she had minimal contact with her blood relatives, Ms. Clark stated that she would gift her estate to those individuals to whom she was closest. These close friends of hers included her lawyer (who drafted the will), her accountant (who helped the lawyer draft the will), her long-time nurse and doctor (who spent all hours of the day with her), the Beth Israel Medical Center and, to further her charitable inclinations, to an arts foundation. When Ms. Clark's slighted relatives found out that $300 million had just slipped from their grasp, they were outraged. As such, they did what any sensible American would do - they sued.

After Ms. Clark's death, Ms. Clark's relatives brought a claim against her estate contesting the validity of her will, which left everything to her personal care team. The relatives raised two different arguments. First, they asserted that Ms. Clark lacked the capacity to sign a will. Secondly, they claimed that Ms. Clark had been unduly influenced by the beneficiaries of the second will. As Ms. Clark's relatives did in New York, in Pennsylvania, certain qualified individuals can bring a lawsuit against the estate of a deceased loved one if they believe that the will or other aspect of the decedent's estate plan was the product of improper circumstances.

The first claim asserted by Ms. Clark's beneficiaries was that she lacked testamentary capacity. In Pennsylvania, any person who is over the age of eighteen and is "of sound mind" has the necessary capacity to sign a will and give it binding legal effect. In general, any adult individual who is able to understand the nature and consequences of their actions and can clearly identify the people who should logically benefit from their will, such as children, grandchildren, and close loved ones, has capacity. It is important to note that just because an individual has disinherited relatives, does not automatically mean that they lack capacity. People disinherit relatives for all kinds of reasons. What matters is that the individual knows that they are disinheriting relatives who would be the logical beneficiaries of their estate.

The question for capacity is simple: Did the decedent know what they were doing when they signed the will? An individual is of questionable capacity if they do not understand what is going on around them. Are they often disoriented as to their identity? Confused about time and place? Unable to identify people they have known for a long period of time? In such cases, the victims of an improperly executed will (i.e.: the slighted beneficiaries) may be able to raise a claim for lack of capacity. The parties challenging the will based on lack of capacity must clearly prove that the deceased person was not of sound mind at the precise time they signed the will. As long as the decedent had capacity at the moment the will was signed, then they will be deemed to have capacity.

What happens if the challengers can successfully prove that the decedent lacked capacity when they signed the new will? In such cases, the Court can hold the will invalid and in effect, pretend like the defective will never existed. Then, it is within the Court's discretion to distribute property in accordance with the intestacy laws, or to resurrect one of the decedent's prior wills, if any exist.

Stay tuned for our next blog, to learn more about will contests.  If you have any questions about an estate, contact McMorrow Law, LLC to speak with our Estate Administration and Probate attorneys at 724-940-0100 for a free 30 minute consultation.

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