Undue influence has always been one of the most difficult claims to prove in an estate contest. New York County Surrogate Nora Anderson has determined in The Matter of Wechsler ,2015 Slip Op 3100 U, that sufficient issues of fact have been raised by the Petitioner to warrant a trial on the question of whether or not Lewis Wechsler was the victim of undue influence when his second wife of 32 years advised his executor that there was no need to probate his Will since she had already transferred his assets to her. This totally frustrated a long-standing testamentary scheme which had been memorialized by no less than four very similar Wills which provided for the children of the decedent’s first marriage as well as his wife. As a result of her actions, more than eight hundred thousand dollars in brokerage accounts together with a Park Avenue Coop apartment were siphoned out of Mr. Wechsler’s estate!
Surrogate Anderson’s decision is a veritable clinic for those who wish to understand and deal with situations where undue influence may be an issue. Rarely do any of us make a decision which is not the product of one form of influence or another. In fact, most things which influence decisions might best be classified as “due influence”. The exercise of undue influence involves literally taking over the ability of another person to make his or her own decisions; a substitution of one’s own will for the free will of another.
This is your lawblogger’s case. Much of the evidence used to demonstrate the argument that undue influence led to the improper transfer of the assets of the decedent came from the medical records and especially the nurses’ notes in his hospital records. The Petitioner was the attorney for the decedent for many years and had drawn all of his Wills, none of which provided for his children to be disinherited. He also testified that the decedent’s sister and neice had called him to try to convince him to draft a new will favoring Mrs. Wechsler. What the record reveals –but the decision does not specify– is that both of these women are experienced psychiatrists, thereby raising an inference that they may have used their professional skills to influence the decedent to sign documents transferring his assets to his wife when he was hospitalized. The record revealed a man in a seriously weakened condition having suffered from a myriad of debilitating conditions, leaving him open to pressure to abandon his long-standing and well constructed testamentary scheme.
It is important to consider that Mr. Wechsler died in February 2006, a full nine years ago and this middling – sized estate is still in litigation. It may be that the court’s decision on this motion — which was filed in March 2013— will be appealed, thereby adding at least another twelve to eighteen months to the process. If the decision is affirmed –or if no appeal is taken– there will be a trial. The case will go on for at least a total of ten years. Hopefully, we will be able to report on the conclusion of this matter before then.