Family Challenges Woman’s Last Will and Testament

The court upheld her gift to her minister.

Church Law and Tax 1991-03-01 Recent Developments

Wills, Trusts, and Estates

A Louisiana appeals court ruled that a last will and testament that left the bulk of an elderly woman’s estate to her minister was valid. Relatives challenged the gift to the minister on the basis of two considerations. First, they claimed that the woman (who was 89 at the time of her death, and 84 when she executed the will) was not of sound mind. Second, they relied on a state law prohibiting clergy who “attend a person during the sickness of which he dies” from receiving any portion of that person’s estate. The relatives argued that the woman had died of arteriosclerosis, which had been diagnosed ten years prior to her death, and that the minister who received her estate was her attending minister at the time her arteriosclerosis was first diagnosed. A trial court rejected both contentions, and the relatives appealed. A state appeals court also ruled in favor of the minister. With regard to the woman’s mental capacity, the court observed that persons are presumed to have mental capacity unless the contrary can be demonstrated by “clear and convincing evidence.” Such evidence was not present in this case. The court acknowledged that there was evidence of “some confusion and combativeness on the part of the [woman] but did not indicate that she totally lacked the capacity to execute a will ….” With regard to the state law prohibiting clergy from receiving deathbed gifts from persons that they “professionally attend,” the court observed that the minister who received the estate was never the woman’s minister, but rather was a family friend. Further, the court noted that the relatives’ interpretation of the state law was unreasonable, for it “would have the practical effect of precluding a minister from receiving a legacy once a long-time illness is diagnosed. It would not be reasonable to hold that [the woman] could not give a legacy to her friend … because she was diagnosed as having arteriosclerosis [10 years earlier] and he was her minister at that time.” Succession of Easterly, 563 So.2d 1006 (La. App. 1990).

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