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Maine Supreme Court: Deafness no Barrier to Valid Will

The Maine Supreme Court has ruled that deafness does not defeat the ability to make a valid will.

In Estate of Washburn, 2020 ME 18, the dispute over the validity of David’s will (the Decedent) was between David’s surviving spouse, Michelle, and Laurie, on behalf of her minor son she had with David.  David and Michelle had their wills prepared simultaneously by the same attorney, Seasonwein. David was deaf.  In meetings between David, Michelle, and Seasonwein, Michelle used sign language to facilitate communication between David and Seasonwein.  David and Michelle separated shortly after their wills were executed, but remained married at David’s death.

Deafness is No Barrier to a Valid Will

As explained by the Maine Supreme Court (citations omitted) deafness alone is not a barrier to making a valid will:

[I] in a majority of those cases that have reached this issue, deafness alone has been deemed insufficient to conclude that the testator lacked testamentary capacity—the focus is still on the mental capacity to understand the will. Old age, forgetfulness, deafness, blindness, illiteracy, or alcoholism, standing alone, do not establish that the testator lacked testamentary capacity.

Laurie contended that the “methods of communication employed at the meeting among David, Michelle, and Seasonwein were so inadequate that he could not possibly have understood the contents of the will he signed.”  In affirming the trial court’s decision to uphold the will, the Court further explained:

The court was not persuaded that the communication barrier between David and Seasonwein was as significant as Laurie contends. The court explicitly found that David “had engaged in multiple financial transactions, to include purchasing real estate, mortgaging property, and financing automobiles . . . . No evidence was presented to establish that [David] engaged in these transactions with the assistance of any sign language interpreters.” The ability to engage in such significant financial transactions despite purported communication barriers demonstrates that David possessed a “disposing mind . . . as would enable a person to transact common and simple kinds of business with that intelligence which belongs to the weakest class of sound minds . . . .” Estate of O’Brien-Hamel, 2014 ME 75, ¶ 28, 93 A.3d 689. These facts were supported by competent evidence in the record and corroborated by multiple witnesses.

Not only was David able to conduct financial business of significant magnitude without an interpreter, but the court also found that David had collaborated with Seasonwein successfully without a sign language interpreter in the past.

Spouse’s Presence at Attorney Meeting, Without More, Does Not Create Undue Influence

In rejecting Laurie’s undue influence claim, the Court explained as follows (citations omitted):

In arguing that a confidential relationship did exist, Laurie relies heavily on the fact that Michelle acted as a nonprofessional sign language interpreter for David during their meetings with Seasonwein, describing Michelle as “the conduit of [David’s] desired testamentary disposition.”

However, the evidence demonstrates that David also communicated with Seasonwein via gestures, notes, and lip reading. Further, David had successfully consulted with Seasonwein on other legal matters without any interpreter present, with no evidence of having had any difficulty doing so. The evidence cannot support a conclusion that Michelle was an informational gatekeeper for David, using her ability to hear and speak to exert her influence over David. Further, the evidence does not indicate that Michelle held explicit or implicit power over David. She did not have power over his finances or hold a power of attorney.

David was not enfeebled mentally or physically. The evidence before the court at hearing, even when viewed in the light most favorable to Laurie, could not sustain a finding of a confidential relationship of the sort that normally underpins cases of undue influence.