• A South Carolina court rejected a claim that an elderly decedent’s will, which left the bulk of her estate to the Lutheran Church in America (“LCA”), was the product of “undue influence” and accordingly invalid. The decedent executed her first will at the age of 78. This will left 10% of her estate to her local church, 40% to various relatives, and 50% to another charity. At the age of 87, the decedent began changing her will. The fourth and final amendment of her will, executed when she was 88 years old, placed the bulk of her estate in a charitable trust, the income from which was distributed to the LCA. The final will was challenged by a beneficiary whose share of the estate had been reduced. The beneficiary argued that the final will was invalid since it had been the product of undue influence. The court acknowledged that undue influence can invalidate a will, but it denied that the decedent’s final will had been the result of undue influence. The court observed that undue influence must be proven by the person challenging a will, and that it consists of “influence amounting to coercion destroying free agency on the part of the [decedent]” so that the will was the result of “force and fear.” The court, in rejecting the allegation of undue influence, observed that the final version of the decedent’s will had been executed “when she was in reasonably good health, and during her latter years [when] she continued to work in her yard, talk with her neighbors, do some cooking and go to a grocery store ….” In short, she still possessed sufficient independence and health to support the conclusion that “she was the ultimate decision maker.” Accordingly, the allegation of undue influence was rejected and the validity of the will upheld. Many wills leaving substantial portions of estates to churches and other charities have been challenged by “disinherited heirs” on the basis of undue influence. Persons bringing such lawsuits often recognize that they have a weak case, but they sue anyway, hoping that the church will quickly “settle” with them in order to avoid the potential “adverse publicity” associated with such lawsuits (what church wants to be accused publicly of coercing elderly members into making gifts to the church). If your church receives a gift under a will that is challenged on the basis of undue influence, be sure to bear in mind a couple of considerations. First, undue influence usually is very difficult to prove, particulary when the decedent was in reasonably good mental and physical health at the time the will was executed. Second, in many states, undue influence must be proven by “clear and convincing evidence”—a more difficult burden of proof than the ordinary “preponderance of the evidence” standard. A church that becomes aware that an elderly or infirm person is considering leaving a portion of his or her estate to the church can reduce the possibility of undue influence even further by ensuring that the person obtains the independent counsel of an attorney in drafting the will or trust. First Citizens Bank & Trust v. Inman, 370 S.E.2d 99 (S.C. App. 1988).
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