Law School Case Brief
Estate of ERNEST WILLIAM HENAULT - G025278, 2002 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5510 (June 19, 2002)
In an action to set aside a will of a deceased person on the ground of undue influence, it is necessary to show that the influence was such as, in effect, to destroy the testator's free agency and substitute for his own another person's will. Evidence must be produced that pressure was brought to bear directly upon the testamentary act. Mere general influence, however strong and controlling, not brought to bear upon the testamentary act, is not enough; it must be influence used directly to procure the will, and must amount to coercion destroying free agency on the part of the testator. It is further held that mere opportunity to influence the mind of the testator, even coupled with an interest or a motive to do so, is not sufficient.
Eric W. Henault (Decedent) executed a partly printed and partly typewritten two-sided, single-page will that named Charles Castagna II (Castagna) as executor of his estate. The majority of Decedent’s assets were also entrusted to Castagna. Decedent’s brother Emile Henault, in propria persona, filed a petition for letters of administration alleging Decedent died intestate and requesting he be appointed personal administrator of Decedent’s estate. Castagna objected to Emile’s petition. The probate court found the will was valid but that the same was not the product of Decedent’s "own free will." As such, the probate court refused to admit the will offered by Castagna to probate and instead appointed Emile as administrator of Decedent’s estate. Castagna appealed the probate court’s decision, arguing that the probate court erred in refusing to probate the will.
Did the trial court err in refusing to probate the will based on the finding that the same was not the product of Decedent’s "own free will?"
The Court of Appeals noted that in an action to set aside a will of a deceased person on the ground of undue influence, it was necessary to show that the influence was such as, in effect, to destroy the testator's free agency and substitute for his own another person's will. Undue influence can be established in two ways. First, when a confidential relationship existed between the decedent and the beneficiary, and the beneficiary both actively participated in procuring the execution of the will and unduly profited by it, a presumption of undue influence would arise and would place on the beneficiary the burden to show that the will was freely made. Second, when there was no presumption, sufficient indicia of undue influence may still be proven. The court found that the evidence did not support a finding of a presumption of undue influence. For the presumption to arise, all three elements – confidential relationship, active participation in will procurement, and undue benefit - must be present. The court noted that a close friendship did not create a confidential relationship without something more. It was only after the Decedent signed the will that Castagna became Decedent’s fiduciary; hence, no presumption of undue influence arose in the present case. As no presumption of undue influence arose, it was necessary for the will contestants to prove a sufficient indicia of undue influence to invalidate the will; this, the court found, they failed to do, as there was no substantial evidence that Castagna actively procured the will. While there was substantial evidence showing that Decedent was very ill at the time he executed his will, the testimony showed that on the day the will was executed, Decedent was not too ill to understand what he was doing. As such, the court reversed the decision of the probate court.
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