Estate Administration: Something Smells Funny
Will Contests – Part Two: Undue Influence
In part one of this blog on will contests, I discussed the issues with the estate of copper heiress Huguette Clark. Check out that post here (link to Part 1). Just to recap, Ms. Clark died leaving a boatload of cash to pass on to people. Instead of passing it onto her family members, who were somewhat distantly related, she passed her buckets of money on to her attorney, accountant, personal care nurse, physician and charity. Her family, understandably, was upset that they would be missing out on the cash so, like any good American, they sued. Part one of this blog discussed the first issue raised by Ms. Clark’s family – lack of capacity. In case that argument failed, however, the family had another crack at challenging the distribution to Ms. Clark’s closest professional assistants.
The basis of an undue influence claim is that the wrong people are going to benefit from a decedent’s will. Ms. Clark’s family raised the issue of undue influence, alleging that the second will she wrote, which disinherited her family, was the product of wrongful actions by the unsavory characters who ultimately benefitted from her Will. In Pennsylvania, to win a claim of undue influence, the slighted beneficiaries must prove that, but for the wrongful actions of the new beneficiaries, the decedent would have left her property to them. In Clark’s case, her family claims that her lawyer, accountant, nurse and other caregivers coerced, pressured with threats, fraud, or other means to such an extent, that Ms. Clark’s own will was completely overrun and, ultimately, her will reflects what the caregivers wanted, not what Ms. Clark wanted. The crux is that the will now reflects the desire of the third party, not the desire of the testator.
Claims of undue influence can be very difficult to prove. Even in cases like Ms. Clark’s, where one may think that the pressure from her lawyer, accountant, nurse and doctor could not be denied, an undue influence claim is not a slam dunk. Where there is such a special dependent relationship between the testator on the supposed influencer (think lawyers, doctors, accountants and professional assistants) there is a stronger case for undue influence. Nevertheless, the slighted beneficiaries, like Ms. Clark’s family, have an uphill battle. If a slighted beneficiary can prove that the decedent’s will was the product of improper and undue influence from a third party, the court can set aside the will and order that property be distributed in accordance with a prior will of the decedent or by intestacy laws.
With estate administration, will contest cases require the assistance of experienced legal counsel. Our firm has guided many clients through difficult Orphans’ Court litigation, including, of course, will and trust contests. Contact our Pittsburgh Will Contest attorneys at McMorrow Law at 724-940-0100 to discuss your case.