Appeals Court Upholds Challenge to Disinheritance

By Michael J. Tucciarone

The Massachusetts Appeals Court in Adler v. Adler (83 Mass.App.Ct. 1135, June 7, 2013) upholds a trial court’s finding that a mother’s disinheritance of her daughter were the result of her diminished capacity and undue influence by her brother.

Harold and Ruth Adler were long-time residents of Lincoln, Massachusetts. During the couple’s 60-plus year marriage Ruth was a primary homemaker, and Harold was a very financially successful engineer and entrepreneur. After selling his high-tech firm, Mitrol, he created a family-held corporation, Stratford Realty, which was engaged in land development. Both of their children, Bruce and Davina, had stakes in the company.

In January 1989, with the aid of their long-time counsel, Harold and Ruth created a comprehensive estate plan leaving the residue of their estate to Bruce and Davina, equally. In September 1997, Harold died. Ruth’s health declined from 1999 onward, and she required the assistance of health aides around-the-clock. In 2000, instead of her long-time counsel, Bruce arranged to have another attorney represent his mother. Almost immediately, the attorney recommended the conveyance of her two lake-front homes to Bruce. Ruth did so in August 2000, for unspecified consideration or payment. The attorney then also drastically revised her estate plan, effectively leaving all of the real estate and residue to Bruce, and limiting Davina’s inheritance a to a small sum of cash.

In November 2003, due to Ruth’s mental confusion and persistent language problems, Davina arranged for Ruth to meet with a behavioral neurologist who diagnosed her with significant cognitive problems and moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. Shortly thereafter, guardianship proceedings began, and the trial judge found that Ruth lacked capacity at the time of conveying the two lakefront properties to Bruce and changing her and Harold’s estate and that the execution was a result of undue influence.

On appeal, the court  finds that testamentary capacity or mental competency to execute an estate plan is ultimately an issue of fact for the trial judge, who received conflicting evidence, that it is not in a position to overturn absent a finding by the trial judge was plainly wrong, which was not the situation in this case.

Undue influence, or outside pressures which negate the free will of the testator, are also an issue of fact for the trial judge to decide. Based on Ruth’s diminished capacity, dependence, Bruce’s role as fiduciary in charge of her finances, continual presence with her, starkly disparate and unexplained dispositions of the estate planning instruments, the caregiver’s testimony about Bruce’s descriptions of Davina to their mother, and the judges assessment of each witness’s credibility; the appeals court finds the trial judge was amply justified in finding that the contested estate planning instruments and the deeds were the result of undue influence.  

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