Probate Administration | Wrongful Actions
There are certain basic legal requirements when a person transfers property, conveys a power of attorney or establishes a plan for the distribution of an estate. Among the most important are:
In the Matter of Wechsler, a 2015 opinion from the New York County Surrogate’s Court, specifically addresses both of these issues.
Lewis Wechsler died in February, 2006, survived by his wife of 30 years and two adult children from a previous marriage. In the probate proceedings to settle his estate, a will executed in November 2004 was offered to the court. That will placed all his property into trust for the lifetime benefit of his wife, with his children designated as beneficiaries upon her death. The deceased had executed five prior wills, the first in 1992, with the same provisions.
During the probate proceedings, however, it was discovered that most of the property that would have passed through the will had been transferred to the decedent’s wife through a serious of transactions, starting in June, 2005. This included the execution of a power of attorney in favor of the wife, as well as the transfer of individually owned property to jointly held property. The executor asked the Surrogate Court to compel the wife to turn over property, alleging that the decedent lacked capacity to make property transfers or execute a power of attorney, and that the wife had exerted undue influence to bring about the property transfers. The wife asked the court to dismiss the executor’s motion, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of lack of capacity.
As a general rule, legal capacity refers to the ability to understand both the nature of a transaction or agreement, as well as its consequences. In Wechsler, the executor introduced evidence indicating that the decedent had been admitted to the hospital the day before he executed the first transfer of property to his wife (in June, 2005). Notes from that admission state that he “was becoming more confused recently,” and diagnosed him with a “waning mental status,” indicating that he occasionally mistook his daughter for his wife. Other documentation from that visit described him as “forgetful” and prone to lapses in short-term memory.
The wife contended that the confusion and disorientation demonstrated that day were a one-time occurrence, citing other assessments that the decedent was “alert and oriented” and able to communicate his needs.
The court ruled that the determination of whether the deceased had the necessary capacity to execute the first transfer was a factual issue that needed to be (and had not been) resolved. Accordingly, the court denied the motion to dismiss. However, because the executor had introduced no evidence suggesting that the decedent experienced the same capacity issues when the other property was transferred, the court ruled that all transfers except the first one were valid. (NOTE: The executor had introduced expert testimony from a medical professional alleging incapacity at the time of the other transactions. The court rejected that testimony, citing the fact that the expert had never personally examined the decedent or discussed his condition with attending nurses or physicians).
As stated by the court in Wechsler, undue influence requires a showing of influence that amounted to “moral coercion.” That influence must have “restrained independent action” and must have led the decedent to do something which was “against his free will and desire.”
The court concluded that there were genuine issues regarding whether or not the wife exerted undue influence. The medical record indicated that he was in extremely poor health and suffering from depression at the time of the transactions. Evidence also showed that the wife was integrally involved in all the transactions. She drafted some of the letters requesting property transfers and also brought documents to the decedent, so that he could sign them from his hospital bed. In addition, the court was troubled by the fact that the decedent had used the same attorney to handle all prior estate planning (the executor), but that attorney had not been consulted before these transactions.
Because the court perceived that there were still factual issues to be resolved regarding the question of undue influence, the court denied the wife’s motion to dismiss the action.
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