Master in Chancery Finds That “Strong-Willed” Decedent Was Not Susceptible to Undue Influence During Nearly All of the Time-Period at Issue

Delaware Fiduciary Litigation Blog

Posted November 21, 2013

Nancy B. Minieri, et al. v. Diane E. Bennett, C.A. No. 4792-ML (November 13, 2013)

In this case, Master LeGrow wrote a 45-page post-trial opinion that addressed undue influence claims. The Petitioners argued that the “gifts” the Decedent made to the Petitioners’ sister, who was also the Decedent’s daughter (“Ms. Bennett”), during the Decedent’s lifetime – including the funding of a significant addition to Ms. Bennett’s house, naming Ms. Bennett as the beneficiary of most of the Decedent’s bank accounts, and transferring certain jewelry, personal property, or other funds to Ms. Bennett – were not of the Decedent’s own volition, but instead were the product of undue influence exerted on the Decedent by Ms. Bennett. The Petitioners contended that, because Ms. Bennett was in a confidential relationship with the Decedent at the time the transfers were made, the usual presumption that an inter vivos transfer was not tainted by undue influence does not apply, and Ms. Bennett bears the burden of establishing the absence of undue influence.

The Master explained that “[t]here is a presumption under Delaware law that both inter vivos transfers of wealth, and wills and other testamentary documents, are the product of the donor’s or testator’s free will and are not tainted by undue influence.” She went on to say that “[c]hallenges to inter vivos gifting or testamentary dispositions of property based on claims of undue influence require the Court to evaluate five elements: (1) the susceptibility of the donor to undue influence, (2) the opportunity to exert undue influence, (3) disposition or motive to do so for an improper purpose, (4) actual exertion of undue influence, and (5) a result demonstrating its effect.” The Master explained that the party challenging a transfer as tainted by undue influence ordinarily bears the burden of proving these elements by a preponderance of the evidence but that that burden shifts if the challenging party shows by clear and convincing evidence that the party allegedly inducing the transfer was in a fiduciary or confidential relationship with the donor.

After describing in detail her factual findings and the trial testimony at issue, the Master found that two of the five elements (opportunity and motive) existed here.  But after acknowledging a doctor’s finding that Decedent was in early stages of Alzheimer’s (albeit seemingly treated with some drugs that would slow its progression) and noting that a second doctor had found that the Decedent had “some memory problems typical of her age,” the Master found that the Petitioners had failed to show that the Decedent was susceptible to undue influence during most of the period at issue (not until September 2008), including during the time during which the Decedent agreed to pay for the home addition project, which by the way, the Decedent was to reside in. Notably, the Master’s opinion mentions several times the various evidence that showed that Decedent had maintained her “strong-willed” personality up until at least September 2008. In that regard, the Master wrote, “the evidence presented at trial showed that, although she may have had memory lapses and occasional difficulties with self-care, and although she plainly felt more comfortable living in Ms. Bennett’s home than by herself, the Decedent remained opinionated, strong-willed, and independent until the last few months of her life.”


William M. Kelleher, Director
Gordon, Fournaris & Mammarella, P.A.