• Key point: A gift of property to a church that is contained in a decedent’s will can be invalidated if the gift was the product of “undue influence.”
• The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a provision in a deceased church member’s will leaving the bulk of her estate to her church was invalid since it was a product of the pastor’s “undue influence.” A 96-year-old woman died, leaving the bulk of her estate to the Baptist church she had attended for many years. For many years, the woman suffered from alcoholism and during the 1970’s her health and living conditions deteriorated. From 1980 to 1983 the pastor of a local Baptist church became closely acquainted with her and visited in her home several times. By 1984 all of the woman’s friends were members of this church. The pastor arranged for several of them to regularly assist the woman by cleaning her home. Through this process the woman became very dependent upon the pastor and reposed great trust in him. Although in 1983 the woman attended several sessions of an estate planning seminar at her church, she failed to make the last session where a “will information guide” was distributed. In 1984, when the woman was 89 years of age, the pastor brought her a copy of the “will information guide” and spent several hours assisting her in cataloging her assets. The pastor later asked a church member who was an attorney to contact the woman and discuss her will’s preparation. This attorney had not represented the woman in any other legal matters. Before the attorney drafted the will he had one 15-minute telephone conversation with her in which he discussed the contents of her estate using the “will information guide” provided him by the pastor. After the will was drafted, it was sent to the pastor who delivered it personally to the woman and discussed its terms with her. The attorney later discussed the will’s provisions in a second 15-minute telephone conversation with her. A few weeks later the woman was taken to the attorney’s office by a church member. She reviewed her will and signed it. All of the subscribing witnesses were church members chosen by the pastor. They testified later that the woman understood the provisions of her will, appeared normal, and was aware of the existence of her sole heir (a nephew). The attorney sent the pastor a bill for the preparation of the will, which was presented to and paid by the woman. Seven years after the will was signed the woman died. Her nephew claimed that the gift to the church should not be honored since it was based on “undue influence.” Undue influence is a legal doctrine that invalidates gifts that are prompted by the undue influence of another person. A trial court agreed with the nephew that the pastor’s actions amounted to undue influence since he had overcome the woman’s “free agency.” A state appeals court concluded that since the pastor received nothing under the will he was incapable of unduly influencing the deceased. The nephew appealed this ruling to the state supreme court. The supreme court reversed the appeals court’s decision and reinstated the trial court’s order that invalidated the gift to the church.
The court applied a “2-prong test” to determine whether undue influence invalidates a provision in a will: First, does a “confidential relationship” exist between the deceased and another person; and second, did the stronger party in the relationship assist in the preparation of the weaker person’s will. Factors to be considered in applying this 2-prong test include: (1) whether the person charged with undue influence was not a natural object of the maker’s bounty; (2) whether the stronger person was a trusted or confidential advisor or agent of the will’s maker; (3) whether the stronger person was present or active in the procurement or preparation of the will; (4) whether the will’s maker was of advanced age or impaired faculties; (5) whether independent and disinterested advice regarding the will was given to its maker. The court then noted that
[u]pon finding that a confidential relationship existed between the will’s maker and another and ascertaining that the stronger party actively assisted in the preparation or procurement of the will, a rebuttable presumption of undue influence will at once arise. The person who desires to overcome this presumption must then go forward to produce evidence showing either that (a) the confidential relationship had been severed before the critical events in controversy or (b) the will’s maker actually received independent and competent advice about the disposition of his or her estate.
The court concluded that a confidential relationship existed between the deceased and her pastor who was her “spiritual advisor and a close personal friend for more than the last 14 years of her life,” and that the pastor was instrumental in procuring the gift. The court remarked that the church “was not a natural object of [the deceased’s] bounty,” and then observed:
It is unquestionable that he actively participated in securing the will which was economically beneficial to [the church. The woman] had suffered from alcoholism and was of advanced age at the time she executed her will. The record does not disclose that she ever received from any person independent and disinterested advice regarding her will. Upon finding that [the pastor] stood in a confidential relationship with [her] and that he had unduly influenced her in the procurement and making of the will in contest, the [trial] court properly shifted to [the pastor] the burden of producing evidence which would rebut the presumption of undue influence.
The court rejected the pastor’s claim that he could not have unduly influenced the woman since he received nothing under her will. It observed: “[A] will which is the product of an influence brought to bear against the maker in any manner which overcomes his or her free agency cannot be sustained. Whether the person exerting the overbearing influence actually benefits personally under the will’s terms is immaterial. A person’s lack of beneficiary status under the will’s terms does not render one legally incapable of, or excuse him or her from, exerting undue influence.” Suagee v. Cook, 897 P.2d 268 (Okla. 1995).
See Also: Undue Influence
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