Brief Fact Summary. Testator last executed will left most of her estate to her only surviving child and left very little to her two grandsons whom she had helped to raise. The will was drafted by the chief beneficiary’s family attorney and Plaintiff’s allege that the will should not be admitted to probate on grounds of undue influence.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A presumption of undue influence created by a professional conflict of interest along with a confidential relationship between the testator and the beneficiary, must be rebutted by the proponent of the will with clear and convincing evidence.
Testator was left a large estate after the death of her husband. She had two daughters, Betty Haynes and Dorcas Cotsworth, each who had children of their own. Haynes and her two sons came to live with testator after her husband’s death. Gaynes’ sons moved away at the disappointment of their grandmother, however Gaynes continued to live with her mother until her own death. Testator then went to live with her younger daughter, Cotsworth. During testator’s lifetime she executed many wills and trusts agreements which were prepared by a long time family attorney, Richard Stevents. After moving in with her younger daughter, testator executed a will leaving most of her estate to her daughter Cotsworth and very little to her two grandsons. This will was drawn up by the Cotsworth family attorney after several conversations between the Cotsworth family and the attorney. Plaintiffs, testator’s grandsons, sought to set aside the will on grounds of undue influence arising from the
confidential relationship between testator and her daughter, the chief beneficiary. The trial court held that the Defendants rebutted the presumption of undue influence and that an in terrorem clause in the will was unenforceable. The appeals court affirmed but held the clause enforceable. Plaintiffs now appeal.
Whether a will is invalid on the grounds of undue influence attributable to the fact that the attorney who advised the testator and prepared the will was also the attorney for the chief beneficiary, the testator’s daughter whom the testator depended on?
Whether under New Jersey common law a no-contest or in terrorem clause is enforceable?
Remanded. A presumption of undue influence created by a professional conflict of interest on the part of an attorney, coupled with confidential relationships between a testator and the beneficiary, must be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. The matter must therefore be remanded to the trial court for new findings of fact and conclusions of law based on this burden of proof.
No. Reversed. When there is probable cause to challenge a will or trust agreement an in terrorem clause will not be enforced. Since the trial court concluded that the Plaintiff’s case was with good faith and based on probable cause the no contest provision will not be enforced.
Dissent. Points of Law - for Law School Success
A confidential relationship exists when the testator, by reason of weakness or dependence, reposes trust in the particular beneficiary, or if the parties occupied a relationship in which reliance was naturally inspired or in fact existed. View Full Point of Law
Dissenting in part concerning the in terrorem clause. Although the legislature has since made such clauses unenforceable by statute when the testator included this provision it was within judicially declared public policy to have them enforced. The testator’s wishes should therefore be upheld and the clause enforced. Discussion.
First element needed to raise a presumption of undue influence is a confidential relationship between the testator and a beneficiary. Such a relationship existed in this case as the testator was dependent on her sole surviving child for care and support. In addition the presumption needs the presence of suspicious circumstances which will shift the burden of proof to the proponent of the will. Suspicious circumstances existed in this case as the testator’s will was drastically altered by the family attorney of the chief beneficiary. The Court goes onto determine that a significant burden of proof needs to be imposed on a proponent of a will in such circumstances and therefore remands to determine if the proponents can met such burden.