Ohio Supreme Court Sets High Bar to Find Undue Influence in Will

By Stephen J. Silverberg
New York Elder Law Attorney

A will which has been admitted to probate is presumed to have been made free from restraint. As a result, a very high threshold must be set to establish that a decedent was unduly influenced or lacked testamentary capacity. A decision from a recent case from the Supreme Court of Ohio, Young v. Bellamy, shows just how difficult it is to overturn a will.

In this case, the person contesting the will—a granddaughter of the decedent—was written out of the decedent’s estate plan in a series of wills executed over a period of five years. In turn, the proponents were incrementally given larger shares of the estate. The granddaughter claimed that her grandfather was unduly influenced and lacked testamentary capacity at the time that he executed his last will.

To refute her claim, the other relatives gave the court affidavits of three disinterested witnesses who were with the 96-year-old decedent when he signed the will. All said they saw no indication of lack of capacity, susceptibility to undue influence or actual coercion or duress. One went so far as to describe him as “an engaging elderly man.”

To invalidate a will, undue influence “must so overpower and subjugate the mind of the testator as to destroy his free agency and make him express the will of another rather than his own, and the mere presence of influence is not sufficient,” the Court wrote. Further, proof of undue influence requires four key elements: a susceptible testator;  a person with an opportunity to exert influence on the testator; the fact of improper influence exerted or attempted; and finally, a result showing the effect of such influence.

In response to the three affidavits, the contesting granddaughter submitted her own affidavit describing her relationship with the decedent, alleging that the decedent said he had no memory of executing a prior will and asserting that the decedent had requested that she contact an attorney to change the will.

The Supreme Court wrote that testamentary capacity exists when the testator has sufficient mind to: (1) understand the nature of the business in which he is engaged; (2) comprehend generally the nature and extent of the property which constitutes his estate; (3) hold in his mind the names and identity of those who have natural claims on his bounty; and (4) appreciate his relation to the members of his family.

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and the Court of Appeals, both of which found that the granddaughter’s self-serving affidavit wasn’t enough to overcome the presumption of validity of the will and the three affidavits of those who observed the testator on the date of execution of the will.

Summary judgment was granted for the other family members and the granddaughter was out of luck.

About the Author
Stephen J. Silverberg is nationally recognized as a leader in the areas of estate planning, estate administration, asset preservation planning, and elder law. He is a past president of the prestigious National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), and a founding member and past president of the New York State chapter of NAELA.