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Weakened Intellect In Pennsylvania Will Contests

Determining the existence of a weakened intellect in Pennsylvania will contests on the grounds of undue influence is a different inquiry than determining testamentary capacity.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court in the November 2019 case of Estate of Fabian, explained the standards for a weakened intellect analysis in its reversal of the lower court’s finding that the testator did not suffer from a weakened intellect.

The Facts of Estate of Fabian

This case concerned the Last Will and Testament of Stella Fabian, executed in June of 2014.  Stella was predeceased by her daughter, Barbara, and by Stella’s husband.  The June 2014 will left Stella’s estate to two nieces, and two nephews.

Decedent’s prior will was done in 1988.  In the 1988 will, Decedent’s estate was left to Barbara, but if Barbara predeceased her, it was divided up into 5% and 10% bequests to numerous nieces and nephews, including the contestants of the 2014 will and the proponents of the 2014 will.

The will contestants challenged the 2014 will on the grounds of undue influence, lack of testamentary capacity, fraud, and mistake.  After hearings, the challenge was denied, and the contestants appealed.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s opinion focused on the lower court’s finding that Decedent did not have a weakened intellect at the time the 2014 Will was executed.

When Is There A Weakened Intellect To Support An Undue Influence Finding In Pennsylvania?

The Superior Court summarized the standard for finding a weakened intellect under Pennsylvania law:

The weakened intellect necessary to establish undue influence need not amount to testamentary incapacity… Accordingly, the particular mental condition of the testator on the date he executed the will is not as significant when reflecting upon undue influence as it is when reflecting upon testamentary capacity.  More credence may be given to remote mental history.

Therefore, when determining the existence of weakened intellect for an undue influence finding in a Pennsylvania will contest, the court should look back in time, instead of focusing in a vacuum on the day of the execution of the challenged will.   This focus is different than when determining the existence of testamentary capacity, when the day of execution would be more important.

Evidence of A Weakened Intellect In a Pennsylvania Will Contest

Testimony from several witnesses revealed the following evidence to support a finding of weakened intellect under Pennsylvania law:

  • Decedent suffered from moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease
  • Decedent was not capable of making her own medical or financial decisions
  • Decedent’s condition deteriorated from the time she was admitted to her care home
  • Decedent would not have understood the nature of her assets and the possible objects of her bounty
  • Decedent lacked the capacity to execute a will after April 16, 2014
  • Decedent performed poorly on multiple mini-mental-status exams
  • Decedent needed assistance with laundry, shopping, transportation, managing finances, using the telephone, making and keeping appointments, care for personal possessions and writing correspondence.

The Importance of The Drafting Attorney’s Testimony in a Will Contest

Here, the Orphan’s court relied heavily on the testimony of the drafting attorney and the witnesses on the day the will was signed, stating that the testator did not suffer from weakened intellect because “she was quite lucid at the time she executed the contestant will.”  According to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, this finding was in error.Generally, the Pennsylvania courts view the drafting attorney as a very important witness in a will contest case:

[T]he scrivener of a will, especially if a lawyer, is always an important and usually the most important witness in a contested will case, and, where the lawyer knew the testator prior to the execution of her will, his testimony showing voluntary and intelligent action by the testator makes out a prima facie case that requires very strong evidence to offset it.

In this case, however, placing great weight on the drafting attorney’s testimony was misplaced for a weakened intellect determination.  Here, the drafting attorney had only met decedent twice, in the span of one week.   The attorney was basically a stranger to the decedent, and could have had no way of knowing whether decedent’s mental state leading up the the execution of the will could have rendered her susceptible to undue influence. :

As noted above, because undue influence is generally accomplished by a ‘gradual, progressive inculcation of a receptive mind,’ the ‘fruits’ of the undue influence may not appear until long after the weakened intellect has been played upon.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court found that the decedent did suffer from a weakened intellect in the period leading up to the execution of the 2014 will, and remanded the case for a determination as to whether the will proponents established, by clear and convincing evidence, the absence of undue influence.

 

 

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