“What?! Grandma Left Everything to Cousin Joe?!”

The death of a parent is difficult enough. But the pain of that loss is often magnified when suspicions arise or are confirmed that someone (often another family member) unduly influenced[1] the dying parent, and caused them to execute or alter estate planning documents in such a way as to generously benefit one person, potentially to the exclusion of any other possible beneficiaries. This was the situation in a recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case, In The Matter of the Estate of Alice R. Sharis, 83 Mass. App. Ct. 839 (2013).

In Sharis, a grandson, one of sixteen, moved in with his grandmother and her husband. He lived with them for seven years before they both succumbed to natural causes. During that period, the grandson made no monetary contributions to the upkeep or running of the home, but eventually gained complete control of the couple’s financial accounts through a durable power of attorney document executed around the same time that the grandmother’s husband contracted Alzheimer’s disease. A will was also executed by the grandmother providing that the house, and all of its assets, along with the grandmother’s stocks and securities were to pass to the grandson. One of the grandmother’s three daughters brought an action contesting the will on the grounds of undue influence.

A claim of undue influence is comprised of four elements: “1) an unnatural disposition has been made 2) by a person susceptible to undue influence to the advantage of someone 3) with an opportunity to exercise undue influence and 4) who in fact has used that opportunity to procure the contested disposition through improper means.” O’Rourke v. Hunter, 446 Mass. 814, 828 (2006) (citations omitted). Hernon v. Hernon, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 492, 497 (2009). Furthermore, while the burden of proof ordinarily rests with the party contesting the will, a “fiduciary who benefits in a transaction with the person for whom he is a fiduciary bears the burden of establishing that the transaction did not violate his obligations.” Cleary v. Cleary, 427 Mass. 286, 295 (1998).

After trial, the judge found, among other things, that the grandmother lacked the advice of independent counsel while executing her estate planning documents. The grandson selected the attorney who would draft the documents, communicated with the attorney via email, and transported his grandmother to sign the documents. The judge also found that the grandmother never even met the attorney who had drafted the documents, but had only spoken with him via telephone on two occasions, briefly. Additionally, the judge ruled that the grandmother had no prior wills, or was even familiar with wills or their terminology.

Suffice it to say, both the Trial Court and the Appeals Court held that the will purporting to convey all of the grandmother’s assets to the grandson was the product of undue influence, and that the grandson had engaged in self-dealing, with respect to his fiduciary obligations to the grandmother.

If you have questions about proper estate planning, or if you have a parent who you believe is being taken advantage of by another person, don’t wait to get help! Contact the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. today.

[1] “Any species of coercion, whether physical, mental or moral, which subverts the sound judgment and genuine desire of the individual” Neill v. Brackett, 234 Mass. 367, 369 (1920)

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