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Home / Courts / Trusts & Estates – Wills – Undue Influence – Fiduciary Relationship – Testatrix’s Daughter

Trusts & Estates – Wills – Undue Influence – Fiduciary Relationship – Testatrix’s Daughter

In re Estate of Raney (Lawyers Weekly No. 11-16-0947, 25 pp.) (Robert N. Hunter Jr., J.) Appealed from Iredell County Superior Court. (Christopher M. Collier, J.) N.C. App. Unpub. Click here for the full-text opinion.

Holding: A brother presented enough evidence to go to the jury on the question of whether his sister unduly influenced their mother – while the mother was under a doctor’s care and was living in the sister’s house — to change her will in favor of the sister.

We affirm the trial court’s denial of the sister’s motions for a directed verdict, for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and for a new trial.

The doctrine of undue influence has four general elements: (1) the testatrix is subject to influence, (2) there is an opportunity to influence the testatrix, (3) a disposition to exert influence, and (4) a result indicating undue influence. Whether undue influence exists is a question of fact determined by reference to relevant factors, including the following: (1) old age and physical and mental weakness; (2) that the person signing the paper is in the home of the beneficiary and subject to his constant association and supervision; (3) that others have little or no opportunity to see her; (4) that the will is different from and revokes a prior will; (5) that it is made in favor of one with whom there are no ties of blood; (6) that it disinherits the natural objects of her bounty; and (7) that the beneficiary has procured its execution.

The mother’s 1996 will purported to revoke a prior will under which the brother stood to inherit substantially more than under the 1996 will. There was evidence of numerous instances of delusional behavior, with one incident occurring within three months of the will’s execution. This suggests the mother was mentally and physically weak at the time she signed the 1996 will.

The brother and the sister (and her husband) were not on good terms. A dispute came to blows, and the brother discharged a firearm during the incident. This suggests the sister had a disposition to exercise undue influence to the brother’s detriment.

And while the evidence does not explicitly indicate the brother was barred from visiting their mother at his sister’s residence, it does suggest such a visit would be contentious and potentially dangerous.

The sister testified she did not procure the will’s execution; however, the 1996 will is essentially a reaffirmation of a contested deed (being contested in a separate action) through which the parties’ mother and father purported to transfer most of their assets to the sister. The circumstances under which the deed was executed, immediately after the father suffered a stroke and while the mother was residing in a nursing home, suggest the deed may have been signed under coercive circumstances.  When viewed in the light most favorable to the brother, this evidence indicates the mother was attempting to ensure the transfer in the now-contested deed occurred without realizing she was initially coerced into executing that deed.

The trial court correctly denied the sister’s motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The sister also argues the mother’s medical records should not have been admitted because they included out-of-court statements by the mother. We disagree.

To the extent the medical records contain statements from the mother, those statements are not hearsay. At trial, the brother was attempting to demonstrate a lack of capacity and susceptibility to undue influence on the part of the mother. The statements of the mother were not being offered for their truth. Rather, they were evidence demonstrating the mother’s confusion, disorientation, and otherwise deteriorating mental state. Thus, these statements would not have been offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted and would therefore not be hearsay.

Furthermore, our review indicates the majority of the mother’s statements contained within her medical records, if considered hearsay, would likely have been admissible under several hearsay exceptions.

The sister also objects to the admission of her father’s medical records. The father’s health was relevant to whether the sister had the disposition to exert undue influence upon the mother because it indicated both parents were physically and mentally vulnerable when the contested deed was executed.

Our review indicates the trial court’s ruling — that the admission of the evidence of the father’s health did not run afoul of the N.C. R. Evid. 403 balancing test — was not manifestly unsupported by reason or so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the sister’s motion for a new trial. While this may have been a close case, and a jury could readily find in favor of the sister based on the evidence she presented at trial, the jury verdict was not against the greater weight of the evidence.

No error.

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