Challenging a will is the process of getting a Court to decide that a will cannot be upheld. One way to do this is to prove a lack of “testamentary capacity” when the decedent wrote their will. In Minnesota, “testamentary capacity” exists if “the testator can form a rational judgment concerning her property and the claims of others on her property.” Such a will contest tends to be quite an uphill battle, and more will challenges fail than succeed on these grounds.
Darkenwald Will Contest
An interesting case came down from the Court of Appeals this month. The case is In re the Billie V. Darkenwald Revocable Trust v. Darkenwald, trustee. In that case a new will and a trust amendment were challenged. In this case, Mr. Darkenwald died in 2010 and Ms. Darkenwald died in 2016. When Mr. Darkenwald died, and through 2013, all of their four children and nine grandchildren were beneficiaries to their will and trust. Then, on July 26, 2013, Ms. Darkenwald amended their trust by removing one of the children and at least three of the grandchildren. Ms. Darkenwald had been diagnosed with dementia. It was alleged that the new will and trust amendment were the “product of undue influence” by another of the beneficiaries.
Trial and Appeal
The matter went to trial, and the jury made two findings. First, they found that Ms. Darkenwald “lacked testamentary capacity to make a new will and amend her trust.” Second, they found that the new will and trust amendment were “the product of undue influence.” The losing party challenged the findings, and the matter went to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals upheld the jury's findings. They reiterated the test for determining whether a testator (a person writing a will) has the requisite testamentary capacity. (1) Reasonableness or naturalness of the property disposition. (2) The testator's conduct within a reasonable time before and after execution of the disputed will. (3) Prior adjudication involving testator's mental capacity. (4) Expert testimony pertaining to the mental and physical condition of the testator. The court reviewed the facts of the case and affirmed the jury's findings.
There are several takeaways for this case:
- This is a semi-rare example of a will and trust amendment successfully being challenged. Usually attorneys make sure that the person signing a will or trust or amendment has testamentary capacity. In this case the system failed and the will contest succeeded.
- Mr. Darkenwald's intentions at death were that all of his children and grandchildren be beneficiaries to the will and trust. But there were no safeguards in place to make sure that Ms. Darkenwald couldn't change things. In cases such as this, where one spouse has dementia, it may be good to put in some protective measures. It can be done, but it does take planning.
- Once things go to Court, then privacy goes out the window. This includes Probate – anything submitted to Probate Court is public knowledge. If this is important to you, then you may want to use a trust to maintain privacy. In this case, there was a trust, but because there was a will contest, the matter still ended up in court.
- Fights among family members are often the ugliest fights to be had. Careful planning can help avoid these fights and keep the family together after you have passed.
If you have questions about the Darkenvald case or want to discuss how estate planning can benefit you, then please contact Signature Law for a free consultation.