Contesting a will is not an easy process. Under Ohio law, a will admitted to a probate court is presumed valid, and anyone contesting such validity bears the burden of proving otherwise. Common grounds for contesting a will include forgery, discovery of a superseding will, or evidence of fraud or undue influence.
Will Contest Goes Beyond Mere Sibling Rivalry
Undue influence refers to circumstances where one or more individuals abuse their power over the person making a will (who is known as a testator). Ohio courts traditionally require four elements to prove undue influence: a susceptible testator, another person or persons’ opportunity to take advantage, the fact of improper influence exerted or attempted, and the result showing the effect of such influence. A contesting party must prove each of these four elements in order to invalidate the will. Proof must be “clear and convincing,” not the normal “preponderance” as in most civil cases.
While this is a high burden of proof, it can be met as a recent Ohio case illustrates. The testator in this case was 91 years old at the time of his death in June 2014. His wife passed away the previous year. The couple had six surviving children. In 2000, both spouses signed wills leaving their respective estates to one another, then to their six children equally upon the second spouse’s death. At the time of the husband’s death, his estate was valued at approximately $260,000, which included a family farm.
In August 2013, a few weeks after his wife’s death, the testator executed a new will. Unlike his 2000 will, the new document left the bulk of his estate to just two of the testator’s sons, with the other four children receiving significantly smaller inheritances. After the testator’s death, those four children contested the 2013 will, arguing their brothers exerted undue influence over their father.
In Ohio, will contests may be tried before a jury. Here, the jury unanimously held the 2013 document was not the testator’s valid last will and testament. The brothers appealed, but an Ohio appeals court found there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict.
As the appeals court explained, the jury heard testimony regarding the two brothers’ repeated use of “tactics of intimidation” against their father and other family members in order to assert control over the estate. One sister testified her brother “assaulted her by holding her in a doorjamb while repeatedly slamming the door into her in the presence of” their father. Additional testimony established the testator suffered from dementia during the last months of his life, and the two brothers took advantage of this to bully him into signing the 2013 will.
In response, the brothers denied they exercised any undue influence and maintained their father left them the farm—the bulk of the estate—in order to keep it in the family. But the appeals court noted nothing in the 2013 will required the sons to keep the farm at all; they were perfectly free to sell or dispose of it without restriction. The will contained no special instructions in that regard.
Consult an Estate Planning Attorney Today
It is unfortunate when family members take advantage of an elderly relative in an effort to influence his or her estate planning. That is why it is important to take control of your own estate planning before you find yourself in a susceptible position. If you need assistance from an experienced Youngstown estate planning attorney, contact the Law Office of John C. Grundy today.