The Third Department of New York’s Appellate Division has upheld a decision of the Albany County Surrogate which granted summary judgment and dismissed objections to the probate of a will in the Matter of Turner recently decided on November 6, 2008. Interestingly enough, the objections failed to challenge the testamentary capacity of the testatrix while claiming that she suffered from "insane delusions" and was the subject of undue influence.
The will in question did involve a deviation from an earlier testamentary scheme. The respondent objectant was a daughter of the decedent who was disinherited by her mother who believed that respondent was stealing from her. She then barred her daughter from her home while, at the same time, continuing to see her twice weekly in what was termed a positive social relationship.
The court ruled that "if there are facts, however insufficient they may in reality be, from which a prejudiced, or a narrow, or a bigoted mind might derive a particular idea, or belief, it cannot be said that the mind is diseased in that respect. The belief may be illogical, or preposterous, but it is not, therefore, evidence of insanity in the person" The court went on to opine that " the apparently unfounded perception by decedent that respondent was mishandling or even misappropriating her money, even though persistent and contrary to the record evidence that respondent was not guilty of any misconduct, could readily have stemmed from decedent’s frustration over the loss of control of the assets, rather than some form of insanity. Indeed, we cannot say that decedent’s failing opinion of respondent, even if illogical and unfair, is so devoid of reason to establish a basis upon which a finding could be made that decedent suffered from an insane delusion. "
This case reminds us that even the lovable (or not so lovable) family whack-job is able to make his or her will in the absence of definitive proof that he or she actually lacks mental capacity or that the facts and circumstances surrounding the making of the will meet the specific requirements to establish undue influence. Before running to counsel with a big fat retainer check in your hand (or before counsel accepts such a challenge on a contingency fee!) it is a good idea to scrutinize the facts in light of the elements which must be pleaded and proved.