The first element necessary to raise a presumption of undue influence, a confidential relationship between the testator and a beneficiary, arises where trust is reposed by reason of the testator's weakness or dependence or where the parties occupied relations in which reliance is naturally inspired or in fact exists. The second element is the presence of suspicious circumstances, which will shift the burden of proof to the proponent. Such circumstances need be no more than slight.
Plaintiffs sought to set aside the probate of their grandmother's will and related trust instruments on the grounds of undue influence alleged to be attributable to the fact that the attorney, who advised the testatrix and prepared the testamentary instruments, was also the attorney for the principal beneficiary, the testatrix's daughter, in whom the testatrix had reposed trust, confidence and dependency. The trial court held that defendants had rebutted the undue influence presumption arising from the confidential relationship between the testatrix and her daughter, the chief beneficiary, but that an in terrorem clause in the will was unenforceable. The appellate division affirmed the finding of no undue influence but held the clause was enforceable.
Taking into consideration the surrounding facts of the case, was the will invalid on the ground of undue influence?
The Court ruled that in this case, there were suspicious circumstances attendant upon the execution of the will which the trial court failed to accord sufficient weight to. The Court posited that there was a confidential relationship between the testatrix and her attorney, who was also the attorney for the daughter and the daughter's immediate family. Furthermore, following the establishment of the confidential relationship of the daughter's attorney with the testatrix, there was a drastic change in the testamentary dispositions of the testatrix, which favored the daughter. According to the Court, these factors collectively triggered the presumption that there was undue influence in the execution of the will. As such, the court also ruled that in keeping with the policy of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 3A:2A-32, which took effect after the date of probate, an in terrorem clause was unenforceable where probable cause existed to challenge the will.