Summary Judgment Granted in Undue Influence Claim After Plaintiff Failed to Provide Sufficient Evidence

In re Estate of Wilson, No. A-5350-18T2, 2020 WL 3527333 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 30, 2020).

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling that a plaintiff’s speculation alone is insufficient to challenge testamentary capacity or show undue influence in a will’s execution.

Stuart V.V. Wilson and his second wife, Amelia, were married for over twenty-five years before Stuart’s death in 2016.  Stuart also had a daughter from his previous marriage, Wylie Wilson.

From 1992 until less than two months before his death, Stuart drafted a series of new wills, changing the nature of his bequest, the beneficiaries of that bequest, and the will’s executors.  Stuart’s initial will divided his residual estate equally between Amelia and Wylie but included a general bequest of $100,000 to Wylie.  However, between 1992 and 2014, Stuart made several new wills, excluding Wylie’s general bequest and naming Amelia and Stuart’s attorney as co-executors.

Between 2014 and 2016, Stuart changed his will three more times.  In June 2014, Stuart executed a will naming Wylie the sole executor and beneficiary of his residual estate.  But in November 2014, Stuart again changed his will, naming Amelia sole executor and beneficiary of his residual estate, and rescinding Wylie’s bequest.  Stuart made the last alteration to his estate plan in January 2016, leaving his estate to Amelia and providing Wylie with only $200,000.  Stuart explained in a duly executed memorandum that he believed this bequest was sufficient because he had provided significant financial assistance to Wylie throughout her life.  Stuart similarly changed the beneficiary on his retirement accounts, eventually eliminating Wylie’s share and leaving the entire account to his wife.

Stuart’s health began declining in 2012.  Nevertheless, his doctors asserted that he was “alert” and “oriented” until his death.  Similarly, Stuart’s attorneys stated that Stuart understood his new estate plan and was of sound testamentary capacity to execute his will.  Neither attorney noticed any signs of undue influence, nor was Amelia present when Stuart discussed changing his will with his attorneys or when he executed it.

Even so, Wylie contested her father’s will after his death, claiming that he lacked the testamentary capacity to change the beneficiaries on his retirement accounts and to execute his last two wills.

Amelia moved for summary judgment on Wylie’s claims.  Wylie cross-moved for summary judgment, alleging undue influence and suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of Stuart’s last two wills.

The trial court granted Amelia’s motion, concluding that Wylie failed to present sufficient evidence of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity.  Instead, she presented “her own speculation and a report from a medical expert who never examined Stuart and rendered an opinion [of incapacity] solely” on Wylie’s recommendation.  Additionally, Wylie did not offer evidence of suspicious circumstances and failed to demonstrate that Stuart and Amelia’s marriage differed from any other twenty-five year relationship.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court decision.  As the Appellate Division discussed, where a will is contested for lack of testamentary capacity, New Jersey courts presume that a testator possessed the necessary capacity to execute the will.  In re Livingston’s Will, 5 N.J. 65, 71 (1950); In re Will of Liebl, 260 N.J. Super. 591, 524 (App. Div. 1992).  However, the presence of undue influence rebuts that presumption.  In re Livingston’s Will, 5 N.J. at 71.  Undue influence occurs when another party exerts mental, moral, or physical influence over the testator, preventing the testator from making his bequest of his own free will.  In re Estate of Stockdale, 196 N.J. 275, 302-03 (2008) (citing Haynes v. First Nat’l State Bank, 87 N.J. 163, 178 (1981)).

After reviewing the record, the Appellate Division noted that despite the trial judge’s repeated requests, Wylie failed to present evidence concerning Stuart’s mental capacity other than her own speculation and Stuart’s several alterations to his will.  This alone was insufficient to create a question of material fact as to whether Stuart lacked mental capacity or was unduly influenced when he executed his final will.  Therefore, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.