• 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 Texas court ruled that a 99-year-old widow's will, which left most of her estate to a church and college, was not invalid on the basis of undue influence. At the age of 99, a widow (the "decedent") executed her last will and testament. The decedent made several gifts in her will, including a $75,000 gift to a church and over $2 million to a private college that her son had attended prior to his untimely death more than fifty years ago. After the decedent's death, her nephews and nieces challenged the validity of the will in court. They claimed that the decedent's will was invalid because it had been procured through "undue influence," and therefore her entire estate should pass to them. In particular, the heirs alleged that visits by the college development officer constituted an undue influence over the decedent who was 98 years old at the time, lonely, isolated, and plagued with physical infirmities. Finding no evidence of undue influence, the trial court ruled that the will was valid. The heirs appealed.
A state appeals court noted that to prove undue influence, a person challenging a will must prove "(1) the existence and exertion of an influence; (2) the effective operation of such influence so as to subvert or overpower the mind of the testator at the time of the execution of the testament; and (3) the execution of a will which the maker thereof would not have executed but for such influence." The court also observed that not every "influence exerted by one person on the will of another is undue, for the influence is not undue unless the free agency of the testator was destroyed and a testament produced that expresses the will of the one exerting the influence." The court noted that when heirs attempt to prove undue influence through circumstantial evidence "the circumstances must be so strong and convincing and of such probative force as to lead a well-guarded mind to a reasonable conclusion not only that undue influence was exercised, but that it controlled the will power of the testator at the precise time the will was executed."
The court acknowledged that the college development officer had visited the decedent on several occasions when she was 98 years old, but it concluded that this evidence "shows merely an opportunity to exert an improper influence and nothing more. The contestant failed to offer specific facts of how [the development officer] unduly influenced [the decedent] …. [I]t is not improper for charitable organizations to offer estate planning advice, including plans for charitable donations."
Application. This case illustrates two important points.
1. Difficulty of proving undue influence. This case illustrates the difficulty heirs often face in attempting to prove that a will was the product of undue influence. After all, this case involved a 98-year-old woman who was "lonely, isolated, and plagued with physical infirmities." Nevertheless, the court summarily rejected the heirs' claim of undue influence. One of the reasons that undue influence is so hard to prove is that heirs must prove it by evidence that is "so strong and convincing and of such probative force as to lead a well-guarded mind to a reasonable conclusion not only that undue influence was exercised, but that it controlled the will power of the testator at the precise time the will was executed." A similar standard is applied in most states.
2. Charities can engage in estate planning. Also significant was the court's conclusion that "it is not improper for charitable organizations to offer estate planning advice, including plans for charitable donations." Many churches and other charities engage in stewardship and fundraising campaigns that include estate planning. This court found such efforts to be perfectly appropriate and not evidence of undue influence. Estate of Davis v. Cook, 1999 WL 1018066 (Tex. App. 1999).