Master Recommends Will be Set Aside Due to Undue Influence

Delaware Fiduciary Litigation Blog

Posted July 21, 2023

In the Matter of Last Will and Testament and Codicil of Ann C Duff, Deceased, C.A. No. 2022-0803-BWD (June 30, 2023)

          In this case, Master in Chancery David addressed the validity of a will executed seven days before the death of the testator (the “Decedent”). The granddaughter and primary caretaker of the Decedent (“Respondent”) argued that the 2022 Will was the product of the Decedent’s son’s (“Petitioner”) undue influence. After a review of the evidence and Delaware case law, the Master recommended that the 2022 Will be set aside as a product of undue influence and a judgment entered in favor of the Respondent and against the Petitioner.

          On July 9 or 11, 2022, the Decedent—who was 89 years old, legally blind, and fighting a decade-long cancer battle—contacted life alert and admitted herself into the hospital as she no longer felt safe in her home. After she was admitted, the Respondent—who had been taking care of her for several years prior—left to take a preplanned trip. During this time, the Petitioner allegedly received a call from the Decedent’s friend who said the Decedent requested he come to the hospital. The Petitioner then claims that the Decedent told him she had decided to change her will. After being discharged from the hospital, the Decedent, along with the help of the Petitioner and his girlfriend, contacted Delaware Mobile Signing Notary and, shortly later, created and signed the 2022 Will dated July 27, 2022. Seven days later, on August 3, 2022, the Decedent died.

          “Under Delaware law, all .  . . will-contest matters start with the presumption that a testator had the capacity to make a will at the time it was made.” Matter of Langmeier, 466 A.2d 386, 389 (Del. Ch. 1983). The Master also noted that “[t]he party attacking testamentary capacity . . . bears the burden of establishing that the Decedent was legally incapable of executing a valid will.” In re Last Will & Testament of Melson, 711 A.2d 783, 786 (Del. 1998). But, the Master also pointed out,  “the presumption of testamentary capacity does not apply and the burden on the claims of undue influence shifts to the proponent where the challenger of the will is able to establish” and satisfy the three Melson factors (namely, (a) “the will was executed by ‘a testatrix or testator who was of weakened intellect’; (b) the will was drafted by a person in a confidential relationship with the testatrix; and (c) the drafter received a substantial benefit under the will.”)

          After reviewing the evidence, the Master concluded that the Respondent satisfied her burden to prove each of the three Melson factors, which shifted the burden of proof to the Petitioner. Furthermore, after this burden shift, the Master concluded that the Petitioner had failed to satisfy his burden to demonstrate that the 2022 Will was not the product of undue influence. For these reasons, the Master recommended that judgement be entered in favor of the Respondent and against the Petitioner.




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