Any species of coercion, whether physical, mental or moral, which subverts the sound judgment and genuine desire of the individual, is enough to constitute undue influence. A claim of undue influence is comprised of four elements: (1) an unnatural disposition has been made (2) by a person susceptible to undue influence to the advantage of someone (3) with an opportunity to exercise undue influence and (4) who in fact has used that opportunity to procure the contested disposition through improper means.
Spinelli, one of Alice's grandchildren, asked Alice and her husband Peter if he could move into their home after separating from his wife. Spinelli remained there through Peter's illness and death and the death of Alice on February 13, 2010. He made no monetary contributions to the upkeep or running of the home, but he did drive Alice to medical appointments and other destinations. In 2007, Alice signed a durable power of attorney, prepared by Spinelli, that took effect immediately and gave Spinelli broad powers. In 2008, Spinelli contacted an attorney inquiring whether the attorney could draft a will for his grandmother. The attorney did not meet with Alice in person, called her at Spinelli's urging, had a short intake telephone conversation with her, and then assigned the actual drafting of the will to an associate in his office. The associate who actually drafted the will communicated by electronic mail (e-mail) only with Spinelli. There is no evidence that the associate communicated directly with Alice. Once the will was drafted and sent to Alice, the attorney conducted a brief, two-minute telephone conversation with her. No attorney reviewed the terms of the will in person with Alice, nor did an attorney attend the execution of the will. The will provided that all of the Alice's assets be distributed to her husband, Peter, should he survive her. If not, the house and all of the assets and property contained therein were to go to Spinelli, along with all her stocks and securities. Her savings and checking accounts were distributed equally to her three daughters. The residuary was distributed equally among her three daughters and Spinelli. There is no evidence that either the attorney or the associate inquired, or that Alice explained, why she would favor Spinelli over her daughters and other grandchildren. Alice executed her will in a nursing home with the nursing home staff as witnesses. Spinelli was nearby when the will was executed but was not in the room. The employees who witnessed the will did not observe any behavior that caused them to question whether Alice executed the will of her own free will. Following the execution of the will, in September of 2008, Spinelli opened a checking account in his name in trust for Peter and Alice. He transferred $71,450 from the checking account to the trust account. After Alice's death, Spinelli sought probate of Alice's will. One of the decedent's daughters, Florence, contested the will on grounds of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. Spinelli argued that the facts found by the judge do not support the inference that Spinelli unduly influenced his grandmother. The Suffolk Division of the Probate and Family Court (Massachusetts) disallowed the will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence on the part of Spinelli. Spinelli appealed.
Was it proper for the trial court to disallow the probate of the will?
The appellate court held that as the grandson was the decedent's fiduciary under the POA, it was his burden to prove the will was not the product of his undue influence. The trial court's finding that the decedent lacked the advice of independent counsel was supported by evidence that the grandson selected and communicated with the attorney, filled in terms of the will, and transported the decedent to execute it. Evidence of the decedent's advanced age, unfamiliarity with wills, and seventh grade education, coupled with the grandson's nearly complete control of her finances, was sufficient to support the conclusion that the grandson did not meet his burden to prove that the will was executed without undue influence. Neither direct evidence nor evidence of appropriation of the decedent's assets for personal use before death was required to support an inference of undue influence.