Master Refuses to Invalidate Will Even Though No Coherent, Definitive Explanation for Claimed Familial Falling Out Was Offered to Explain Intent

IMO Last Will & Testament of Wilma B. Kittila, deceased C.A. No. 8024-ML (February 18, 2015)

After conducting a trial and reviewing post-trial briefing, Master LeGrow issued her final report in this factually intensive case. Like most will challenges, the case turned on its specific facts, including testimony from the drafting counsel and medical experts.

In this case, the family members of an elderly widow, who didn’t have any children of her own, became estranged from her during a series of events that culminated in a guardianship proceeding filed more than a decade ago in the Delaware Court of Chancery. Per a settlement of the contested guardianship proceeding, the widow’s neighbors were appointed her guardians by court order. But the guardianship order included some atypical provisions, including that the widow retained “the right to legal representation and the right to participate in making decisions which affect her life and property with the final decision being reserved to the guardians.” Further, the order stated that the widow’s family members agreed not to initiate contact with any facility where the widow lived.

The widow revised her estate plan twice, both times excluding the family members who petitioned for guardianship and who previously were the primary beneficiaries of her estate. Those family members challenged the validity of two wills executed by the widow, who was their aunt. The challenged wills left the residue of the decedent’s estate to a combination of the guardians, two other friends, and charitable organizations. The petitioners contended that the wills were invalid for one of three reasons: (1) the decedent lacked testamentary capacity at the time she executed the wills, (2) the decedent was unduly influenced to dispose of her estate in the manner reflected in the challenged wills, or (3) the terms of the guardianship order precluded the decedent from making a will, rendering her legally incapable of revising her estate plan.

The Master explained that while “[]the petitioners’ case is not without merit,” she ultimately had to reject it. In making her decision, the Master found that “among other things, although it is plain that the family’s decision to pursue guardianship drove a irreparable wedge between them and their aunt, it appears more likely than not that the decedent already intended to revise her will and exclude the family as beneficiaries before the guardianship petition was filed. No coherent, definitive explanation for that decision has been offered.” In fact, the two proffered reasons were rather odd and were not well supported by the factual record. Nonetheless, the Master concluded that “the absence of an explanation for that decision is not sufficient to invalidate the decedent’s will because the petitioners have failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity or was unduly influenced at the time she executed her last will.”


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