Master in Chancery Finds That Second Wife of Decedent Did Not Unduly Influence Her Husband

Delaware Fiduciary Litigation Blog

Posted October 6, 2014

IMO The Estate of Aldon S. Hall C.A. No. 8122-MA (October 2, 2014)

This dispute was between the three adult children of the decedent and the decedent’s second wife. The decedent executed his last will and testament (the “Will”) in 1976. The Will left the bulk of his estate to his son Anthony, who the decedent trusted to provide for his other children. The decedent married his second wife in 2008 and died in 2012. After the decedent died, the children discovered that their father’s estate, valued at nearly $600,000, was mostly real and personal property that was held by the entireties or jointly with the decedent’s second wife, thus leaving virtually nothing to his children. The children took exceptions to the first and final accounting filed by the second wife, claiming that the property transfers to his second wife were the product of the second wife’s undue influence or in the alternative, that the joint bank accounts were intended to be convenience accounts.

The children admitted that there was no smoking gun showing that the second wife directly influenced their father, but rather argued that there was enough circumstantial evidence to show that the second wife, over the course of her four year marriage, effectively isolated her husband from his children at a time when he was cognitively impaired. Master Ayvazian reiterated Delaware’s elements of undue influence: (1) a susceptible testator; (2) the opportunity to exert influence; (3) a disposition to do so for an improper purpose; (4) the actual exertion of such influence; and (5) a result demonstrating its effect. She then explained that undue influence must be established by a preponderance of evidence and that while circumstantial evidence may be considered, if the evidence discloses one or more plausible alternative explanations for the testator’s change of beneficiaries, then the petitioner fails to establish undue influence. The Master held that the children failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the second wife actually exerted undue influence over the decedent, and thus did not need to address the other elements.

In addition to the undue influence challenge, the children also challenged the second wife’s assertion that the decedent’s bank accounts were jointly held or held by the entireties. The decedent had several bank accounts that he shared with his wife. The children largely relied on the testimony of one of the children, in which he stated that the decedent told him that the second wife’s name was only on the accounts to help pay bills. However, he never explicated asked his father whether the accounts were joint accounts or convenience accounts. After hearing the testimony from the parties regarding each of the decedent’s accounts, the Master dismissed the children’s exemptions with regards to three bank accounts, and ordered the second wife to obtain additional documentation regarding five bank accounts.

Author(s)

Phillip Giordano
Associate
Gordon, Fournaris & Mammarella, P.A.