Capacity of a Will-Maker and Undue Influence
Capacity of a Will-Maker and Undue Influence:
Jung Estate v. Jung Estate, 2022 BCSC 1298 (“Jung Estate”) is an instructive case regarding testamentary capacity, the testator’s knowledge and approval of the contents of their Will, and the concept of undue influence. By way of background, the testator in Jung Estate was Rose Jung. Rose was described by witnesses as passive and non-confrontational. She left two surviving children: Steven and Jerry. Her assets consisted of a house worth over $1.6 million and the residue of her estate, which was fully spent in paying the expenses of her estate. Multiple factors brought Rose’s capacity into question and caused suspicion around her knowledge and approval of her Will. She made a new Will in 2017, just one month before her passing, although she’d also made a Will in 2001. Despite Rose’s history of treating her sons equally, which was reflected in her 2001 Will, the 2017 Will essentially disinherited Steven, yet offered Jerry a gift of over $1.6 million. Steven started the action; after he passed away, his wife took over the litigation, as she was the executor of Steven’s estate. The action successfully invalidated Rose’s 2017 Will.
In Jung Estate, the court laid out the law surrounding testamentary capacity. It stated that the formal validity requirements of the Will having been met lead to the presumption that Rose, as the testator, had necessary capacity as well as knowledge and approval of the contents of her Will. However, the presumption was rebutted due to the suspicious circumstances raised. The burden to prove the validity of the Will then shifted to Jerry: the person seeking to show the Will was valid. In making its ultimate finding that Rose did not have the requisite capacity, the court discussed and highlighted some of the circumstances that raised suspicion.
In looking to the details of Rose’s situation, the court held that testators must have a disposing mind and memory, such that they appreciate the nature and extent of their assets, as well as the consequences of their Will. The court noted that Rose could not comprehend the value of $1 million, nor did she understand that her gift to Steven, being the residue of the estate, had essentially no value. She did not appreciate the consequences of her 2017 Will. While the lawyer who assisted Rose with her 2017 Will, Mr. Micner, had arranged for a specialist to assess Rose’s capacity, the specialist noted that Mr. Micner “provided him with ‘the softest definition’ of testamentary capacity he had ever received from a lawyer”. The specialist noted that Rose didn’t understand the extent of her wealth, nor could she manage her finances.
Looking to Rose’s poor health at the point she made and executed her 2017 Will, the court noted that Rose became depressed after her husband’s death, and began suffering memory issues and frequent falls starting in 2012. Her health deteriorated to the point that she needed full-time care by 2016, having issues including heart problems, renal dysfunction, and dementia. Rose was a vulnerable individual.
The court also noted the degradation of the relationship between Steven and Jerry. It discussed how the brothers’ relationship took a marked decline after Jerry went through an acrimonious divorce. Steven, a lawyer, had assisted Jerry for some time through the litigation, but was forced to step away due to significant health issues. Jerry was very hurt. Jerry became alienated from his family; he eventually began refusing to visit Steven, even for the holidays. Near the point of Rose’s death, Jerry had began refusing to communicate with Steven about their mother’s care, and refusing to recognize Steven’s power of attorney (with Rose as the subject) or to provide him with receipts.
While the court found that Rose lacked capacity to have validly made or signed the Will, and as such the Will was invalid on the ground of capacity alone, the court went on to discuss markers of a testators’ knowledge and approval. The court discussed the differences between capacity versus knowledge and approval; it stated that capacity includes a person’s ability to make choices, while knowledge and approval include the testator’s ability to understand and approve of their choices. For proper knowledge, the testator must be aware of the magnitude of their estate and the effects of their chosen dispositions. The Will was held to be invalid on this ground too, in addition to the ground of inadequate testator capacity.
Finally, the court explored the possibility that Jerry had unduly influenced Rose. The court held that the Wills Estates and Succession Act (WESA) requires that a party claiming undue influence must show the potential for dependence or domination of the testator. If they’re able to show that potential, the onus to prove that the testator’s will was not overborne through undue influence falls on the person seeking to validate the Will. The court noted that Jerry had the potential for dominance for several reasons. First, Rose was very susceptible to financial abuse. Second, Jerry was instrumental in causing temporary alienation between Rose and Steven. Further, Jerry made the arrangements for Rose to meet with Mr. Micner. While the potential did exist, the court held that Jerry had not exerted undue influence over Rose. Jerry had respected Mr. Micner’s instructions that meetings with Rose must occur without Jerry’s presence, and Jerry further respected Rose undergoing an independent medical assessment.
Jung Estate serves as a guideline of factors that may cause an individual’s Will to be held as invalid. The case warns lawyers of the importance of proper documentation around a testator’s capacity, as well as around any suspicious circumstances or interactions. Estate litigation can be time-consuming, emotional, and costly. The lawyers at Heath Law LLP are experienced in preparing enforceable Wills that meet the needs of testators and recognize the rights of beneficiaries.
If you have questions about preparing a will, contact us today to schedule a consultation.