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What Evidence is Needed to Challenge a Will on the Grounds of Undue Influence or Lack of Testamentary Capacity?

It’s not unusual for individuals who are left out of a family member’s or friend’s will to challenge the will on the grounds of undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity. However, as demonstrated in a recent decision of the New York Appellate Division, it can be difficult to prove your case. The decision highlights the minimum standards and the type of evidence that must be provided to keep the court from dismissing your claim at the outset. 

The case of Matter of Linich is the tale of two wills. The decedent, William Linich, was a photographer, filmmaker and lighting designer affiliated with Andy Warhol. In 2011, he executed a will that named his niece as executor and sole beneficiary of his estate. In 2015, he executed a new will that made his agent the executor and sole beneficiary. 

When he passed away in 2016, his niece submitted the 2011 will to probate and received letters testamentary. At a later date, the agent sought to admit the second will to probate. The niece objected to the second will on the grounds of undue influence and that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity. The trial court granted summary judgment dismissing the niece’s objections and admitted the 2015 will to probate. The niece appealed. 

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that summary judgment should rarely be granted in contested probate proceedings and was inappropriate in this case. 

On the issue of whether the decedent had testamentary capacity (i.e., the requisite mental ability to understand and execute a will), the Court stated that the party submitting a will for probate (in this case, the agent) bears the initial burden of proof to show that the decedent understood the consequences of executing the will, knew the nature and extent of his property, and knew “the natural objects of his bounty” and his relationship to them (i.e. he had fundamental knowledge of his family tree).

The agent initially satisfied this burden by submitting both self-attesting affidavits and deposition transcripts of the witnesses and draftsperson of the will indicating that the decedent was of sound mind. However, the Court noted that this only creates a presumption that the decedent had the requisite capacity to execute the will, but that presumption can then be rebutted by an objectant (someone who files objections to the probate of a will; in this case, the niece).

The decedent’s niece presented the testimony of several disinterested family members who stated that the decedent was close to family members who he excluded from his will and he did not know the extent of his property because he failed to mention valuable copyrights in the will. Further, the niece provided the decedent’s medical records showing that his health began to decline in late 2014 shortly before the 2015 will.

In discussing the claim of undue influence, the Court noted that the objectant bears the burden of proof and must show the will’s beneficiary had the motive and opportunity to exercise undue influence and that he or she actually exercised such influence. However, where a confidential relationship is shown to exist between the decedent and the beneficiary, the burden shifts to the beneficiary. That party must show by clear and convincing evidence that the transaction in his or her favor was not the result of undue influence. 

The Court found that a confidential relationship existed between the decedent and his longtime agent, on whom he was financially dependent (she controlled his bank accounts) and in whom he placed great trust. Further, the Court looked to the testimony of the decedent’s close friend that the decedent was “infatuated” with his agent and could be easily manipulated by her.

The case now returns to the lower court for each side to present evidence at trial regarding testamentary capacity and undue influence. 

The takeaway is that challenging a will is complicated. Appropriate evidence is needed first that the will is valid. Then, the objecting party must meet its burden of proof. 

If you are concerned about a loved one’s will, contact us to discuss your matter.