How do I contest a NY will? Estate of Gunnells

As a NY estate lawyer with more than two decades of experience successfully litigating these very difficult NY estates, I can affirm that no other cases rip families apart like NY will contests.  To make matters even worse these cases can often grind on for years and years in NY estate litigation while absorbing hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation fees as they churn through the courts.

In a recent will contest estate court ruling, Gunnells v. Harkness, the court had to decide whether the decedent Helen Gunnell’s 2013 will should be invalidated as the product of undue influence.  These NY will contest estates often have overlapping facts involving vulnerable decedents who are manipulated by opportunists near the end of their lives. In this case the elderly Helen Gunnells lived with her husband up until 2013 when he passed away.   The couple shared three children, Glenn, Cathy and Belinda.  In 2006, Helen and her husband each had a will drafted leaving their estate to one another with their residuary estates passing to their three children in equal shares.  

This was the couple’s existing estate plan until 2013 when Helen’s husband Arden passed away opening the door for their son Glenn to come live with his mother Helen Gunnells, to “take care of her.”  Thereafter it was not long until Glenn took his mother Helen to a lawyer he retained to redraft her will, naming himself the sole beneficiary of his mother’s estate. Helen passed away a few months later.

Understandably, the newer 2013 will completely disinheriting Helen’s daughter Cathy did not sit well with her.  Cathy retained will contest lawyers to challenge the 2013 will as the product of undue influence.  In May of 2016 the probate court ruled in Cathy’s favor voiding the 2013 will as the product of undue influence and reinstating Helen’s prior 2006 will. 

What were the factors that created undue influence in this case?

As a NY estate lawyer I can attest that NY will contest cases are some of the most difficult cases to prosecute.  In fact, I’d argue that fewer than 1% of all NY will contest estate cases are successful. That being said, as a NY estate lawyer I am not surprised that the court set aside the will in this case as the product of undue influence.

First, it should be said that it is the contestant of a NY will who bears the sole burden of establishing undue influence in these very difficult NY estate cases.  One factor NY probate courts look at in NY will contest estates is the condition of the testator at the time of their NY will’s execution.  In such instances, courts consider whether the decedent, as was the case in Gunnells, was in a weakened condition from either disease and/or taking pain medication. Additionally, where a testator passes away shortly after executing their NY will, also referred to as a death bed will, as in Gunnells, Courts will also weigh such evidence in determining the decedent’s condition in regard to the issue of undue influence.   

Secondly, NY courts also become very suspicious when there is a drastic change to an existing NY estate plan that is contrary to the terms of the prior will, especially so when the new recipient is a sole beneficiary to the exclusion of others.  In Gunnells, we have Helen’s 2006 will clearly divesting her residuary estate equally to her three children, with a subsequent 2013 will inexplicably completely disinheriting two of her three children.  As a NY estate lawyer I can attest that each of these factors would present some evidence of undue influence but alone would probably not be enough to overturn a NY will. However when taking each factor into account with one another the appearance of undue influence begins to unfold.   

Finally, in examining undue influence, Courts look to whether the NY will was prepared by an attorney associated with the beneficiary.  In Gunnells, Helen’s son Glenn contacted the attorney draftsperson to draft the 2013 instrument naming himself the sole beneficiary and orchestrated its execution.  As a NY estate lawyer I can tell you that in light of the totality of circumstances herein, Glenn’s relationship with the attorney draftsperson was a substantial factor that was considered and weighed in the court’s determination of undue influence herein.     

It is apparent that Glenn, the proponent of the latter 2013 will had a clear motive and opportunity to exercise undue influence over his mother Helen Gunnells in the drafting and execution of the instrument.  Furthermore, the latter 2013 instrument greatly benefited Glenn to the exclusion of his sisters, from the prior 2006 instrument.  

If you think a family member may have been taken advantage of by an opportunistic relative or friend it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY will contest lawyer to see if it amounts to undue influence or fraud.  Feel free to call the NYC will contest lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our NYC estate lawyers have more than 50 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, and Dutchess.

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