Will May be Contested Even When Testator Possessed Capacity

Even when a Decedent is believed to have had testamentary capacity at the time a Will was executed, the document may be set aside if it was the result of undue influence.  A recent Illinois decision involved a reversal of the trial court’s dismissal of a case where the appellate court found there was a sufficient evidence to create a presumption of undue influence.  Ellis executed a will in 2007, when he was approximately 79 years old. He died in 2009.  At the time of his death, he owned a farm of approximately 193 acres as well as other monies and personal property. He was not survived by a spouse or any children but did have 11 nieces, nephews, and great-nephews. In 2010, an action disputing the will due to lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, and lack of knowledge regarding the contents of the will was brought by Huelson, who was Ellis’s great-nephew. The contested will directed that the 193-acre farm be given to Yates, the executor and Ellis’ deceased wife’s nephew, in exchange for the payment of $100,000. The will also included bequests to Ellis’s nieces, nephews, and great-nephews, including one to Huelson in the amount of $2,000.

The trial court entered an order denying Huelson’s petition to contest the will. It found Ellis had capacity, Huelson had not met his burden of proving undue influence by Yates and there was sufficient evidence that Ellis possessed sufficient knowledge of the contents of his 2007 will. On appeal, the decision was reversed. The appellate court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to raise a presumption of undue influence in the execution of the disputed will. Yates became Ellis’s fiduciary under a power of attorney for property. The evidence indicated that Yates was the dominant party whom Ellis trusted to assist him with handling his financial affairs as well as many of the affairs of his day-to-day existence. The will was procured and executed under circumstances wherein Yates was more than a participant. Yates suggested to Ellis that the provision concerning the farm be included in the will after Ellis offered to sell him the farm. Yates met with the attorney to discuss the terms of the will. The evidence was sufficient to raise the presumption of undue influence. Yates did not rebut the presumption. There is no evidence that Ellis received any independent advice in the preparation of the disputed will. The only evidence offered to rebut the presumption of undue influence was Yates’s self-serving testimony that he was following Ellis’s directions in procuring the disputed will.

In re Estate of Ellis, 2014 IL App (5th) 130451-U (October 9, 2014) (unpublished)

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