Baby Boomers have known since at least the 1960s that "money can't buy me love." But as the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth continues, with Beatles fans on both the giving and receiving ends, they are learning that the reverse adage can sometimes be true.
Consider the March 18, 2016, opinion of the Kentucky Court of Appeals in Coulter v. Singleton. The dispute was between children and a grandchild of Jewell E. Rice, who died in 2000 at the age of 92. Between 1997 and 1999, Mrs. Rice executed six different wills and made and revoked successive power of attorney designations. All of this occurred first while Mrs. Rice was hospitalized for a broken hip and leg, followed by a period of her independent living, and then while being cared for at the home of one daughter (Helen Simpson), before a falling out with this daughter led to Mrs. Rice's moving in with another (E. Eloise Singleton) who also provided caregiving.
As the Coulter opinion reported, Mrs. Rice "was strong-willed and had a pattern of changing her wills when one of her children did wrong." The earlier wills divided Mrs. Rice's property more or less equally between her six children when gifts outside the estate were taken into account. By 1999, however, Mrs. Rice's affection (and bequest of her estate) had taken a turn decidedly in favor of her daughter Eloise. A Sept. 17, 1999, will left Mrs. Rice's home to Eloise and named Eloise as the executor of her estate, with the other children as equal beneficiaries of the residual estate. Mrs. Rice's first codicil, dated Oct. 4, 1999, removed specific personal property from the residual estate, giving them to Eloise, and second codicil, dated Nov. 29, 1999, gifted Eloise all of her mother's money because "Eloise Singleton has cared for me without help from my other children." The final will, dated Dec. 12, 1999, cut off the other children's inheritance completely, leaving all of the estate to Eloise.
Needless to say, the "other children" weren't happy. Sixteen years of Bleak House-like litigation ensued, including two jury trials and one appeal over whether Mrs. Rice's final will was valid.
After the jury in the second trial found this will void for lack of testamentary capacity and as the product of undue influence, Eloise probated the Sept. 17, 1999, will and the two codicils described above. These documents were then challenged by one of Mrs. Rice's grandchildren, who was the child of one of the disfavored "other children." At this third trial, held in Lincoln Circuit Court, Judge Jeffrey Burdette granted directed verdict to Eloise. He held that no reasonable juror could find that Eloise exercised undue influence over her mother with respect to the will and codicils at issue.
In affirming Judge Burdette's ruling, the Court of Appeals reiterated important principles of Kentucky law. A party challenging the will "must show more than mere opportunity to exercise" undue influence. "[R]easonable influence obtained by acts of kindness or by argument addressed to the understanding is not in law an undue influence." Rather, there must be either direct or circumstantial evidence the person influencing the testator "obtain[ed] dominion over the" testator's "mind. . . to such an extent as to destroy his free agency in the disposal of his estate, and constrain[ed] him to do that which he would not have done if left to the free exercise of his judgment."
Because direct proof of undue influence is usually unavailable, courts often consider whether so called "badges" of undue influence exist. Such badges include (1) whether the testator was physically weak and mentally impaired, (2) whether the principal beneficiary and the testator had been in a longstanding relationship or instead had become close relatively shortly before execution of the will, (3) whether the principal beneficiary participated in the preparation of the will, (4) whether the principal beneficiary had possession of the will after it was executed, (5) whether the principal beneficiary made efforts to restrict contacts between the testator and others who would be "natural objects of . . . [the testator's] bounty," and (6) whether the principal beneficiary had absolute control over the testator's business affairs. Also, if the testator had mental impairment, less proof is required to show undue influence.
There was insufficient evidence of any of these undue-influence badges. Although Mrs. Rice was physically weak, all witnesses agreed she was strong willed and thought for herself. Moreover, there was "nothing unnecessarily unnatural about favoring one child over others," particularly one "who has provided comfort and support" later in the testator's life.
Although "Eloise contacted the attorney who drafted the will and was present" when it was executed at her mother's residence, there was no evidence that Eloise helped prepare it. And as for restricting the disfavored granddaughter's access to Mrs. Rice, "while Eloise may not have liked her visiting, she did nothing to restrict her access." Also, Eloise was not Mrs. Rice's exclusive caregiver, as she "alternated caretaking duties with a hired caretaker." And Mrs. Rice's doctor testified that "she made her own decisions as to which physicians to see."
Rejecting the contention that "Eloise absolutely controlled" her mother's "business affairs," the Court of Appeals noted Mrs. Rice "wrote her own checks, [and] contacted an attorney herself" and that Eloise "acted only at" her mother's "direction in regards to the revocation of Helen's power of attorney." There was "no evidence that Eloise was ever named as" her mother's "power of attorney after" Mrs. Rice "revoked Helen's power of attorney".
"At most," the Court of Appeals concluded, "Eloise had an opportunity to use her presence as a caretaker to influence" her mother's "testamentary decisions," but that this proof was insufficient to show that "such influence took place or overcame" Mrs. Rice's "exercise of her own free will." In short, under the will and codicils at issue, Mrs. Rice's money could go to whomever she loved and not necessarily to everyone who claimed her love.
The Coulter decision is a reminder that when a person wishes to dispose of her estate in a manner that treats "natural" heirs unequally, it is important that the circumstances surrounding the preparation and execution of those documents be managed to the greatest extent possible. This will help to minimize the opportunity for a disfavored heir to challenge their validity based on the badges of undue influence noted above.