Court Affirmed The Probate Of A Will Where The Testator, A Quadriplegic, Blinked His Desires To Draft And Execute The Will

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In Estate of Luce, the court of appeals affirmed a trial court’s admitting a will to probate where the decedent did not personally sign it and only communicating his desires by blinking. No. 02-17-00097-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 9341 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth November 15, 2018, no pet. history). The testator was in a serious accident that left him a quadriplegic. A week after he was admitted to the hospital, he was intubated, which rendered him unable to speak. Paralyzed from the chest down and unable to speak, the testator was able to communicate by blinking his eyes to indicate “yes” and “no.” Using this blinking system, his attorney was able to draft a will based on the testator’s blinked responses to a series of leading questions, and through this system, he directed a notary to sign the will for him. After he died, his estranged wife filed an application to probate an earlier will. The testator’s sister filed an application to probate the most recent 2015 will. After a jury trial, the trial court admitted the 2015 will to probate and appointed the sister as independent executor but awarded the wife nearly $200,000 in attorney’s fees and expenses. Both parties appealed.

The court of appeals first discussed the various burdens. Because the 2015 will had not been admitted to probate, the sister, as the proponent, bore the burden to prove that it was properly executed and that the testator had testamentary capacity at the time of execution. She made out a prima facie case on these issues by introducing the 2015 will, which was self-proving into evidence. The burden of producing evidence then shifted to the wife, as the will’s opponent, to overcome the prima facie case, but the burden of persuasion remained with the sister. The wife argued that the sister failed to carry her burden because there was no evidence that the 2015 will was duly executed or that the testator had testamentary capacity.

Regarding execution, Texas Estates Code Section 251.051(2) requires that a will be signed by the testator or by another person on the testator’s behalf in the testator’s presence and under the testator’s direction. Here the attorney testified that when he arrived at the hospital, a nurse told him that the testator was able to communicate by blinking, so they established a “signal system” by blinking. The attorney testified that he was able to communicate with the testator based on the testator’s blinked responses to a series of leading questions. Through these questions and blinked responses, they established an attorney-client relationship and the attorney determined that the testator wanted to make a new will that revoked any earlier ones. Further, Texas Government Code Section 406.0165 provides: “A notary may sign the name of an individual who is physically unable to sign or make a mark on a document presented for notarization if directed to do so by that individual, in the presence of a witness who has no legal or equitable interest in any real or personal property that is the subject of, or is affected by, the document being signed.” Id. (citing Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 406.0165(a)). Based on this . provision, the attorney determined that a notary could sign the will for the testator. When the attorney returned to the hospital with the drafted will, he met with the testator privately to explain the execution process and that the law allowed a notary to sign the will for him. Through the blinking system, the testator confirmed to the attorney that he understood the execution process, that the notary was signing the will for him, and that he was requesting the notary to sign for him. Other witnesses to the execution also testified to the soundness of the system and the testator’s intent. The court of appeals found that this was sufficient evidence to support the finding that the will had been properly executed.

The wife also challenged the evidence that supported the finding that the testator had mental capacity. Testamentary capacity requires that the testator, at the time the will is executed, have sufficient mental ability to understand he is making a will, the effect of making the will, and the general nature and extent of his property. He must also know his next of kin and the natural objects of his bounty, the claims upon them, and have sufficient memory to collect in his mind the elements of the business transacted and hold them long enough to perceive their obvious relation to each other and form a reasonable judgment about them.

The evidence showed that testator did not have a brain injury from the accident. The medical records indicated that he was lucid. The attorney met with the testator alone and determined that they could communicate using the blinking system. The testator communicated that he wanted to make a new will disposing of his assets and property, who he wanted to inherit under the new will, and that he intended to revoke any prior wills. The attorney further testified that the testator understood the nature and extent of his assets and knew who his family members were. The testator, who was in a divorce proceeding with his wife, made clear that he did not want his wife to take under the new will. According to the attorney, the testator was of sound mind, and the attorney had no concerns about the testator’s capacity.

Two days after the will’s execution, a doctor examined the testator who was still unable to speak because he was intubated, but they communicated by the testator nodding his head “yes” and “no” or by him casting his gaze at index cards labeled “yes” and “no.” As a result of the examination, the doctor determined that the testator was fully competent and able to make his own decisions, including financial and medical decisions. Based on all of the evidence, the court of appeals determined that the jury’s finding of mental competence should be affirmed.

The wife also challenged the finding that sister did not unduly influence the testator. The court held that exertion of undue influence cannot be inferred by opportunity alone and there must be some evidence that the influence was not only present but was in fact exerted in connection with the making of the will. The court held:

Although weakness of mind and body caused by infirmities of disease, age, or otherwise may be considered as material in establishing the testator’s physical incapacity to resist or the susceptibility of his mind to an influence exerted, such weakness does not establish that his mind was in fact overpowered or subverted at the time the will was executed. But not every influence exerted by one person on another’s will is undue. Influence is not undue unless it destroys the testator’s free agency and the testament produced expresses the will of the person exerting the influence. Even if one requests, entreats, or importunes another to execute an instrument that makes a favorable disposition, the entreaties and importunities will not render the instrument invalid based on undue influence unless they were so excessive that they subverted the will of the maker. Undue influence may be exerted-among other ways-through force, duress, intimidation, excessive importunity, or deception used to try to subvert or overcome the testator’s will and induce the testator to execute the instrument contrary to his will.

Id.

The wife alleged that the will was the result of sister’s undue influence because at the time the will was executed, the testator was in physical and mental distress; the sister isolated him from the wife and the testator’s sons; he was entirely dependent on the sister; the sister was directly involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of the will; and the will’s property disposition was inconsistent with the 1998 will and was unnatural because it disinherited his wife and sons. The court of appeals disagreed:

Michael was indisputably in a state of severe physical distress at the time the 2015 will was executed. Unable to move or speak, he was confined to a hospital room and was totally reliant on others. But there is no evidence that Michael was experiencing the type of “mental distress” that made him susceptible to undue influence. Michael had not suffered a head or brain injury, and as we detailed above, he was alert and lucid when he executed the will.

It is also undisputed that Michael was isolated from his wife and adopted sons. Tina admitted that she never informed GayeLynne, Kevin, or Jeremy about the accident. GayeLynne did not find out that Michael was in the hospital until a friend told her on November 18, over a month after the accident. Before then, GayeLynne had unsuccessfully tried to contact Michael by calling friends, family members, hospitals, and the police. According to GayeLynne, during this time, Tina left her a telephone message “saying that Michael was perfectly fine.”

After GayeLynne learned about Michael’s accident, Tina told her that she was not allowed at the hospital and threatened to have her arrested if she came there. When Kevin and Jeremy went to visit Michael in the hospital sometime after November 18, Tina and Melissa told them that GayeLynne was not allowed to come to the hospital. GayeLynne never went to the hospital and had no contact with Michael before he died on November 26.

But Michael’s isolation from GayeLynne and his sons and his leaving them out of the 2015 will is not altogether surprising. At the time of the accident, he and GayeLynne (his adopted sons’ biological mother) were separated, and they were in the middle of a contested divorce. Despite GayeLynne’s testimony that at the time of the accident she and Michael were considering reconciling, there was evidence that the divorce was contentious. And when Michael was admitted to the hospital, he made clear to hospital staff that he did not want GayeLynne making medical decisions for him, explicitly telling staff that he wanted his daughters or his sister to do so.

Contrary to GayeLynne’s assertions on appeal, Tina was not “directly involved in the planning, preparation[,] and execution of the 2015 will.” Tina contacted Ferrier and provided information about Michael’s family to Ferrier, but she was not involved in the will’s preparation and execution. As explained above, Ferrier met with Michael privately to discuss the will, and Michael made clear to Ferrier that he did not want GayeLynne, Kevin, and Jeremy to inherit. Indeed, his will states that he is “specifically not making any provisions for [GayeLynne] in this Will because [they] are in the process of divorcing.” Tina was not present when Ferrier drafted the will, when he walked through it with Michael, or when the will was executed. Viewing the evidence under the applicable standards of review, we hold that there is some evidence to support the jury’s no-undue-influence finding and that the jury’s failure to find undue influence is not against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence.

Id.

Finally, the court of appeals sustained the sister’s appeal of the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees to the wife. The trial court had entered judgment notwithstanding the verdict after the jury found that the wife was not in good faith in attempting to probate an earlier will. The court of appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding and that the trial court erred in disregarding that finding:

But as we have explained in detail, at the time of the 2015 will’s execution, GayeLynne and Michael were in the process of divorcing. Michael’s medical records-all of which GayeLynne stated that she had read before trial-reflected that, when Michael was admitted to the hospital a week before the will’s execution, he told hospital staff that because of the divorce, he did not want GayeLynne to make decisions for him and wanted his daughters to do so. His medical records also reflected that he had not suffered any brain or head injury because of the accident and that when the will was executed, Michael was alert and oriented as to person, place, and time and had not had any pain medication for several hours. The jury also heard videotaped deposition testimony from four witnesses regarding the drafting and execution of the 2015 will and Michael’s testamentary capacity. This evidence (of which GayeLynne was aware before trial) is some evidence to support the jury’s finding that GayeLynne did not act in good faith in trying to have the 1998 will admitted to probate, and we certainly cannot say that GayeLynne conclusively proved the opposite. Accordingly, the trial court erred by disregarding the jury’s good-faith-and-with-just-cause finding against GayeLynne and by implicitly finding that she acted in good faith and with just cause to be entitled to an award of attorney’s fees and expenses for probating the 1998 will. We thus sustain this part of Dowdy’s second issue, which is dispositive of his appeal.

Id. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment admitting the 2015 will to probate and reversed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees to the wife.

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