Estate of Melter, 167 Wn. App. 285, 273 P.3d 991 (2012) is an interesting case, well authored by both the majority, and the separate concurrence. It’s a must read for Washington trust and estate lawyers. We think it is important because it addresses one beneficiary’s confidential relationship with the decedent and how that can affect his (or his opponent’s) burden of production and proof in a will contest where undue influence is alleged.
The case is also important in that it emphasizes testamentary capacity as an important factor in distinguishing mere influence, which is nugatory, from undue influence, which is consequential. Here are the basic facts:
After dad passed away son, William flew to Florida to take of mother, Virginia. There he arranged for mom to see an attorney to draft a will that left mom’s Florida home to William, and the residue evenly between son William and William’s brother (and the other son) John. William and mom arrived in Washington State, where mom was to live temporarily with John in Liberty Lake, Washington, while William attended a wedding in Hawaii. Hawaii turned into an extended stay due to William having a heart attack.
Meanwhile, John took great care of mom, and mother decided to stay permanently with John. While mother was living with John, arrangements were made for her to update her estate plan. This new Will split everything evenly between William and John. While mother continued to live with John, the relationship deteriorated between John and William – they fought over William’s refusal/inability to release personal property and financial records of mom’s that he had stored away back when he stayed with mom in Florida.
John asked his mother’s attorney to draft a new estate plan that disinherited William completely. The attorney declined, but a new attorney accepted the representation and wrote a will that disinherited William. When mother died, William challenged the Will as a product of undue influence.
So, who’s burden of proof? Was it William’s burden to prove that John unduly influenced mom? Or since John was in a “confidential relationship” with mom, i.e. taking care of her, acting as her attorney-in-fact, was it John’s burden to disprove undue influence?
Ordinarily, with a confidential relationship, it would be John’s burden of proof. But, the Court stated that John produced sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption, which kicked the burden back to William. And the appeals court said that, as a matter of law, there was insufficient evidence of John’s alleged undue influence. So the court reversed the trial court’s finding/conclusion that John unduly influenced mom. So the Will contest was unsuccessful.
The other reason we think this case is interesting is how much it emphasized mom’s testamentary capacity as a factor weighing against William’s undue influence claim. Often attorneys look at capacity and influence separately, but this case reminds us how intertwined they are.