Huguette Clark’s Continuing Will Contest Saga (Part I): Undue Influence

The parties involved in the embattled estate of Huguette Clark, the heiress who died in New York City in 2011 after spending the last 20 years of her life in a room at Beth Israel Medical Center, may be reaching a settlement.

The battle among the heirs developed upon Ms. Clark’s passing, when it was ascertained that she signed two different wills in 2005 with drastically different provisions for the distribution of her estate.  In the first will, the vast majority of her estate was left to her family; while the second will disinherited them and left most of her estate to a new arts foundation with additional bequests to her doctor, nurse, lawyer and accountant.  Ms. Clark’s family sued to have the second will set aside, arguing undue influence was exerted upon those around her who ultimately benefited from the revised will provisions.  In order to avoid a trial, it seems as though all parties to the first and second will have come to a tentative settlement.  However, the question still arises as to how this situation arose in the first place and what may be done in the future by others to prevent a will contest in their own estate.

In North Carolina, a will contest (otherwise known as a “caveat proceeding”) may be filed by any person named in a decedent’s will or who is found to have an interest in the estate.  Generally speaking, this could include beneficiaries under an alleged prior will, intestate heirs and any other person who has a direct interest in the disposition of a decedent’s estate which would be impacted by probate or the setting aside of a will.  Once it is determined that such a person exists, they still need to provide proper grounds for contesting a will.  Simply because a child is not left an inheritance does not mean they have proper grounds to contest the will, so long as the will is otherwise properly written and executed.  The basic grounds in North Carolina that support a will contest include:

1)     Execution was not performed with the requisite formalities;

2)     Testator was under age when the will was executed;

3)     Lack of testamentary capacity; and

4)     Undue influence, fraud, or mistake.

In the embattled estate of Huguette Clark, the basis for the will contest was “undue influence.”  In North Carolina, undue influence exists when a Testator is subjected to and controlled by the dominant influence and power of another.  To prove the existence of such, someone must prove 1) the existence of an influence; 2) the effect of the influence overpowered the mind of the Testator; and 3) the contents of the will would not have been executed but for the influence.  In North Carolina, a presumption of undue influence arises when a confidential or fiduciary relationship existed between the Testator and a beneficiary who was alleged to have exercised undue influence (e.g. attorney and client, doctor and patient, etc.)  Sadly, these were the exact circumstances that gave rise to the will contest in the Huguette Clark estate.  Her second will excluded her family (contrary to her first will) and instead left bequests to those who were in a confidential and fiduciary relationship with her.  Such a drastic change in testamentary intent, especially when the change disfavors family and disinherits the natural objects of the Testator’s bounty, welcomes the potential for a will contest.  Furthermore, considering Ms. Clark’s advanced age and presumed physical and/or mental weakness, there most certainly would be additional concerns and considerations, should this case ever reach trial.

Now that we know a bit about undue influence, how could this have been averted?  Whenever a Testator is making drastic changes to a will, it is important that clear notes be taken regarding the reason for the changes.  Normally, a Testator is presumed to intend to leave their estate to their family, unless a rationale to the contrary is provided.  If a Testator is of advanced age when drastic testamentary changes are contemplated and made, it may be appropriate to have a mental assessment performed by a qualified healthcare provider at the time of the will signing.  If a Testator is leaving bequests to individuals considered to have a confidential and fiduciary relationship, those individuals should remove themselves completely from the will drafting and execution to brace against any potential argument of undue influence.  Ultimately, a will contest may be inevitable, depending upon the circumstances involved, but these are certainly some items to take into consideration in trying to cement your testamentary wishes.

If you’d like to learn about testamentary capacity and whether someone has the requisite capacity to execute a will, check back next week for our follow-up blog.

To learn more about the potential settlement of the Huguette Clark estate, click here.

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