After Applying Melson Metric, Master Denies Undue Influence Claim as Final Wishes Consistent with Late Life Intentions of Decedent

Delaware Fiduciary Litigation Blog

Posted April 8, 2020

Kimberlyn Ray, et al., v. Edna A. Williams, C.A. No. 2017-0178-MTZ (March 31, 2020)

     In this case, the estranged, surviving wife (“Defendant”) sought to undo her husband’s (the “Decedent”) late-life changes to beneficiary designations and burial arrangements with claims of undue influence, tortious interference with an inheritance, and unjust enrichment while in the care of the plaintiffs, the Decedent’s daughters (the “Plaintiffs”).

     The case began when the Plaintiffs filed a complaint seeking a TRO and a declaration from the Court that they had the authority to dispose of the Decedent’s remains. Defendant challenged the Plaintiffs’ claims to handle the Decedent’s remains and funeral arrangements, arguing that the Decedent intended to be buried with her at a plot that they jointly purchased. The Court granted the TRO and the Plaintiffs’ buried the Decedent at the Veterans Cemetery.

     The dispute stems from the Decedent’s decision to leave his wife during the last months of his life and move in with his daughter, one of the Plaintiffs.  During the time he was living with his daughter, his health declined and he eventually passed away from heart failure. While living with his daughter, he changed the beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy from Defendant to the Plaintiffs and altered his burial plans to a veteran’s cemetery away from a previously designated plot intended to be shared with Defendant.

     After the Court granted the TRO, the Defendant brought her counterclaims against the Plaintiffs. The Court held a four-day trial where the Plaintiffs demonstrated that, while in their care, the Decedent was not mentally incapacitated and did not suffer from a weakened intellect. There was no dispute that the Decedent was physically dependent on the Plaintiffs for his care, a factor that only weighed against Plaintiffs in determining if the there was a burden shift under the In re Last Will and Testament of Melson test. Applying that test, the Defendant did establish that the Plaintiffs had a confidential relationship and drafted and received a substantial benefit as a result of the modified beneficiary designations. However, the Vice Chancellor found that because the Decedent did not have a weakened intellect, the burden remained on the Defendant.

     Ultimately, the Court found that Defendant’s undue influence, tortious interference, and unjust enrichment claims fell short because the Decedent’s decisions were his own and that his mind was not subjugated to the will of the Plaintiffs. The Vice Chancellor found that the changes Decedent made in beneficiary designation and burial plans were consistent with the strained nature of his relationship with the Defendant during the end of his life.

Author(s)

Phillip Giordano, GF&M Law
Associate
Gordon, Fournaris & Mammarella, P.A.
William M. Kelleher, Director
Director
Gordon, Fournaris & Mammarella, P.A.