Two of the Most Common Estate Litigation Questions Our Attorneys Face
1) What are the Grounds for Contesting a Will in Maryland?
The Will must meet certain basic “formalities” to be valid. If it fails to meet one or more of the basic requirements the Will fails. It must be in writing, signed by the testator and witnessed by two individuals. The witnesses must sign in the presence of the testator.
The testator must have testamentary capacity. This is a low bar: the testator must know the nature and scope of his assets, must know the “natural objects of his bounty” and must know how the Will connects those possessions with those he wants to benefit.
If the Will is a product of undue influence it fails. This is when someone forces the testator to make a Will in a certain way rather than the testator deciding of his own volition what to provide in the Will.
The Will cannot be the product of an insane delusion. The ancient case establishing this ground to set aside a Will was when the testator failed to leave any property to his ward because he was convinced that she was the spawn of Satan.
A Will that was created because of a fraud perpetrated on the testator will fail. For example, if a document is handed to the testator by someone who tricks the testator to believe it is not a Will but another document, the Will is invalid.
2) How Important is Undue Influence in Will Contests or Caveat Cases in Maryland?
What is undue influence?
Maryland developed a common law definition of undue influence. Undue influence is when someone takes advantage of another person and gets that person to make a will or trust in a way that they otherwise would not do. Usually the end result is to benefit the influencer.
What are examples of undue influence?
Perhaps the “classic” example is when a caregiver hired by an elderly person ingratiates himself or herself into the senior’s life with the result that the caregiver ends up with a sizable bequest in a will. Unfortunately, however, it often is one child manipulating a parent to benefit him or her instead of leaving the estate to all the children equally.
What 7 facts tend to show undue influence according to Maryland courts?
The Maryland Court of Appeals has recognized at least 7 elements that might show undue influence: (1) a “confidential relationship”, (2) a substantial benefit to the alleged influencer, (3) the alleged influencer assisted in effectuating the will execution, (4) the opportunity to exert influence, (5) the will contains an “unnatural” disposition, (6) the will is different than earlier wills, and (7) the person making the will was highly susceptible to undue influence.
Are all 7 facts to prove undue influence equally important?
No. Although every fact tending to prove undue influence adds to a case, the two most important facts in Maryland will contests to show undue influence are (i) whether the testator and alleged influencer are involved in a confidential relationship and (ii) whether the testator was highly susceptible to undue influence.
What is a “confidential relationship” and how does one prove it in undue influence cases?
A confidential relationship often is either where one party is under the dominion and control of another, or where, under the circumstances, such party is justified in assuming that the other will not act inconsistent with his or her welfare. The hallmarks of the first kind of relationship is a degree of coercion. One key to the second kind of relationship is reliance and trust. Some relationships are deemed confidential: attorney/client, trustee/beneficiary or anent acting under a power of attorney/principal but otherwise the existence of the relationship must be proven by (often circumstantial) evidence.
How do you prove a person is highly susceptible to undue influence?
Susceptibility to undue influence is a question of fact. Diminished capacity is one marker. The analysis of medical records by geriatric psychiatrists or others who can give expert testimony on capacity generally useful. Also lay witnesses to other indicators can be helpful – such as whether the alleged influencer isolated the testator, what such witnesses observed as to how the alleged influencer treated the testator and the degree that the testator relied on the alleged influencer. Although the Maryland courts have largely distilled the important factors to only 2 of the 7 factors, the remaining 5 factors give a roadmap to the type of collateral evidence that is useful in undue influence cases.
Maryland Estate, Trust and Other Fiduciary Litigation
- The Trial Lawyers Comprehensive Guide to Maryland Fiduciary Litigation
- Fiduciary Litigation in Maryland
- Will Contests in Maryland
- Irrevocable Trust Modification
- Litigation to Stop and Reverse Elder Financial Exploitation in Maryland
- Court-Ordered Estates & Trusts Mediation In Maryland
- Estate Litigation FAQs