Georgia Court Upholds Will Donating Part of an Estate to Charity

Deceased was not a victim of ‘undue influence,’ court says.

Yancey v. Hall, 458 S.E.2d 121 (Ga. 1995)

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."

A Georgia court ruled that a gift of a portion of an estate to a church agency was not invalid on the ground that the attorney who drafted the will suggested the charity.

A man (the deceased) went to an attorney to have a will drafted. The deceased had no surviving spouse or children, and left $50,000 of his estate to a niece and $1,000 to a nephew. The smaller amount distributed to the nephew was based on the deceased's expressed belief that his nephew was a ne'er do well who drank a lot. The deceased expressed a desire to leave the balance of his estate to charity, and the attorney suggested a particular church agency. The deceased agreed with this recommendation, and a will was drafted and signed containing these provisions.

Following the death of the deceased, the will was filed with a probate court. The nephew challenged the will on two grounds. First, he insisted that the gift to the church agency was invalid on the ground that it was the product of the attorney's undue influence of the deceased. Second, he claimed that the will was invalid on the ground that it was based on the deceased's mistaken belief that the nephew was a ne'er do well who drank a lot.

The Georgia Supreme Court rejected the nephew's claims. First, it ruled that the attorney's suggestion of a particular charity in response to the deceased's expression of a desire to leave a portion of his estate to a charity was not undue influence. The court observed that [a]n influence becomes undue so as to invalidate a will only when it is extended to such a degree as to override the discretion and destroy the free agency of the [deceased]. The attorney's mere advice or suggestions fell far below this standard. Second, the court rejected the nephew's claim that the will should be invalidated on the basis of mistake.

The nephew insisted that the deceased left him only a nominal amount based on a mistaken assumption that he was a ne'er do well who drank a lot. The nephew claimed that he had not had a drink in 20 years, and therefore the deceased was operating under a mistaken assumption in drafting the will. The court disagreed. While a will can be invalidated in some cases on the basis of mistake, this rule does not apply to a mistake resulting from an error of judgment after investigation or from negligent or willful failure to make a proper investigation by means of which the truth could be readily and surely ascertained.

The court noted that the nephew and the deceased lived only a mile apart and they saw each other on a daily basis. As a result, if the deceased gave the nephew $1,000 on the basis of a mistaken belief that he was a ne'er do well who drank a lot, he deliberately arrived at his conclusion of fact after an investigation satisfactory to himself, without choosing, as he might easily have done, to make one more thorough and searching. That his conclusion was wrong affords no cause for destroying his [will].Undue Influence

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