• Key point. A gift to a church contained in a decedent's will may be invalidated if the church "unduly influenced" the decedent in making the gift.
• Key point. A non-attorney who assists a church member in drafting a will containing a gift to the church may be guilty of engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. This may jeopardize the validity of the gift to the church.
A Washington state court ruled that a sizable gift to a church in a decedent's will was not the product of undue influence. It is common for church members to leave gifts to their church in a will. In some cases, family members object to these gifts and seek to void them by claiming that the church "unduly influenced" the member who made the gift. In some cases, church members or employees who are not attorneys assist members in drafting wills, and this represents another basis for challenging the legal validity of a will. The Washington court addressed both of these issues, and its conclusions will provide helpful guidance to church leaders.
A devout church member ("Mary") who was retired and unmarried was diagnosed to be suffering from terminal cancer. She was scheduled to have surgery, followed by outpatient treatment as part of an experimental cancer program. On the evening before her surgery, Mary told a friend ("Judy") that "I am not afraid to die, but I'm afraid of all the things I have to do before I die, like make a will." Judy offered to call an attorney the next day. On the day of the surgery, Judy called her attorney, who was unable to prepare a will that day. He suggested that Judy purchase a "will kit" from a stationery store. Judy went to an Office Depot store and purchased a kit. Mary read the instructions that came with the kit and began discussing her desires with Judy. The day after the surgery, Judy retyped the language from the will kit onto her home computer, and inserted the information Mary had given her. Over the next couple of days, Mary made a few minor revisions to the document and then signed a final version in the presence of three witnesses. A few days later, Mary told some friends that she had just prepared her will, and that most of her estate would go "to the kingdom, for the Lord's work." She also confided that some of her family members might not be happy with her decisions. The friends later testified that Mary, though weak, was strong-willed and resolute. The will left a portion of the estate to family members, but the bulk of the estate went to her church and a parachurch ministry operated by Judy and her husband.