Skip to main content

Capacity Case Illustrates Witness Weight

This unpublished opinion provides an opportunity to discuss the types of witnesses that are often involved in lack of capacity and undue influence cases, and how they are weighed at the trial level.

The case of is called In Re Estate of Aurelia Rokosky (click on the name to read the case).

Aurelia lived alone on Grosse Ile. She apparently had no spouse or children.  But she had a friend who lived nearby until 1994 when this friend moved to Portland, Oregon.  In 1976 Aurelia prepared a will leaving everything to this Portland friend.

In 2008, when Aurelia was 86, she developed a new friendship with a person in Michigan. This Michigan friend helped Aurelia with her shopping and housework.  In 2010, this Michigan friend began helping Aurelia with her bill payment and finances.

Aurelia also had a neighbor (“Neighbor Bill”) with whom she had a good relationship until mid-2010. Before their friendship broke off, Neighbor Bill observed that Aurelia suffered from significant confusion, that she was unable, for instance, to operate her television, and that she repeated herself frequently. Their relationship ended, Neighbor Bill claimed, because Aurelia became paranoid.  At one point in late 2010, Neighbor Bill called the local police department because he was afraid that Aurelia was not safe living alone, but the police found her home and living situation to be in reasonable order.

On January 24, 2011, Aurelia saw a lawyer and had a will prepared leaving everything to the Michigan friend. The lawyer testified that she was clear and coherent at their meeting, and that she had testamentary capacity.

That same day, when Aurelia arrived home, she called Neighbor Bill several times, each time in an agitated state, and each time explaining that she had arranged for her estate to pass to the Michigan neighbor at her death.

A few days later, Neighbor Bill and others who knew Aurelia became concerned that they had not heard from or seen Aurelia. The police were called.  Aurelia was found in her home in her bathtub fully clothed.  It is unclear how long she had been in the tub, and she was taken to a hospital where a doctor evaluated her cognition and deemed her to be “profoundly confused.”

Aurelia was discharged from the hospital to a long term care facility where she lived the remainder of her life and died in August, 2013.

Also, it is important to note that in September 2011, Aurelia met with a second lawyer and executed a ladybird deed leaving her home to Michigan friend at her death. That deed was deemed invalid, and that decision was not appealed.  But the second lawyer also testified that as of September 2011, when Aurelia met with him, she had testamentary capacity.

And finally, the Portland friend, in contesting the validity of the will, employed an expert witness, a geriatric psychiatrist, who reviewed the Aurelia’s medical records and opined that Aurelia lacked testamentary capacity on January 24, 2011 (the date of the will) and for every day thereafter.

After receiving all of this testimony, the trial court admitted the 2011 as valid on summary disposition, and the Portland friend appealed.

So, to sum it up, besides the presumably self-serving testimony of the parties themselves:

  • There are two lawyers who met with Aurelia and who testified that Aurelia had testamentary capacity in January 2011 and in September 2011.
  • There is a police report that indicates that Aurelia’s home was reasonably maintained in mid-2010.
  • There is an uninterested fact witness, Neighbor Bill, who testified as to Aurelia having clear signs of cognitive impairment before the 2011 will was executed, and that Aurelia became severely agitated and confused on the very date she signed the will, leading to hospitalization a few days later.
  • There is the evidence that the Michigan friend, a fact witness who seeks to have the will upheld, cannot dispute, which is that she was helping Aurelia with her daily activities, including her finances, before the will was signed.
  • There is a medical opinion from four days after the will was signed, when Aurelia was in the hospital, that she was demented and severely confused.
  • There is an expert opinion that she lacked testamentary capacity on the date the will was signed.

Indeed it is difficult to understand how a trial judge would think that, with all this evidence, this case could be decided on summary disposition. And you will not be surprised to learn that the Court of Appeals reversed that order and remanded the case for trial.  But this case illustrates some important points about how these cases can be viewed at the trial court level, and what witnesses carry the most weight, including:

(1) Trial judges often place great weight on the testimony of the lawyers they know. Capacity is, after all, a legal question and lawyers who regularly prepare estate plans are considered experts in evaluating whether their clients meet the standards of testamentary capacity.

(2) Capacity is presumed. The burden is on the contestant to overcome the presumption of capacity.  In any case where there is a lawyer who prepared the document, this presumption and the testimony of an experienced estate planning attorney, carries great weight.

(3) Testamentary capacity is a low standard.

(4) The “lucid moment” concept is far from dead. Even though Aurelia was deemed incompetent only a few days after the execution of the will, and even though she spent those few intervening days in a confused and agitated state, and even though there is ample evidence of age-related cognitive decline even before the will was signed, the trial judge presumably had no problem concluding that she was clear and coherent at the moment she signed the will, as her attorney testified.

These are the types of witnesses that often exist in lack of capacity/undue influence cases. What we can take away from this example, I think, is that challenging documents prepared by an experienced lawyer is tough sledding, but can be accomplished.  As in this case, expert opinions have become standard practice, and are often critical to surviving summary disposition.  Solid testimony from an uninterested fact witness can also be very valuable.  And, as I have suggested before, surviving summary disposition is often the first objective.  When a case is heading to a jury, the parties each face significant risk and the possibility of settlement increases accordingly.

Published Opinion: No Immunity for Retained Expert

This question could have come up in some other type of case, but it came up in a probate case and that case is published, so I’ll write about it – briefly.

The question is: Can I sue my own expert witness for malpractice?

The answer is: Yes.

That answer did not surprise me.

To read Estate of Voutsaras v Bender et al, click on the name.

Capacity to Nominate

The question is this: When a person who is the subject of a petition for guardianship or conservatorship nominates an individual they want to serve in those capacities, to what extent is the court required to grant the nominated individual a priority of appointment?  A new unpublished opinion discusses that question, and while I think the opinion falls short in some respects, the issue comes up routinely in contested guardianship and conservatorship matters and this case offers the opportunity to delve into the law.  So here we go:

Let’s start with the law.

MCL 700.5313(2) provides the order of appointment for a guardianship. Its relevant provisions say:

(2) In appointing a guardian under this section, the court shall appoint a person, if suitable and willing to serve, in the following order of priority:

(a) A person previously appointed, qualified, and serving in good standing as guardian for the legally incapacitated individual in another state.

(b) A person the individual subject to the petition chooses to serve as guardian.

(c) A person nominated as guardian in a durable power of attorney or other writing by the individual subject to the petition.

(d) A person named by the individual as a patient advocate or attorney in fact in a durable power of attorney.

For a conservatorship the relevant language is in MCL 700.5409(1), which says:

(1) The court may appoint an individual, a corporation authorized to exercise fiduciary powers, or a professional conservator described in section 5106 to serve as conservator of a protected individual’s estate. The following are entitled to consideration for appointment in the following order of priority:

(a) A conservator, guardian of property, or similar fiduciary appointed or recognized by the appropriate court of another jurisdiction in which the protected individual resides.

(b) An individual or corporation nominated by the protected individual if he or she is 14 years of age or older and of sufficient mental capacity to make an intelligent choice, including a nomination made in a durable power of attorney.

These provisions are similar, but importantly different:

While both statutes provide that, unless someone has already been appointed to serve as guardian or conservator by another state, the highest priority goes the person nominated by the proposed ward. But in the guardianship context, the law provides that the court “shall appoint” the person with priority if they are suitable and willing to serve. In a conservatorship proceeding, the court “may appoint” and having a priority merely provides that such persons “are entitled to consideration.”

Interestingly, the conservatorship statute says that before considering a person nominated by the proposed ward, the court must find that the proposed ward “is of sufficient mental capacity to make an intelligent choice.” In the guardianship context there is no requirement that the proposed ward be capable of making a good choice.

The guardianship law also elevates the person nominated by the proposed ward at the hearing above a person previously nominated in a power of attorney or patient advocate designation. In the conservatorship context, those two forms of priority are equal.

For the record, both statutes are further buttressed by MCL 700.5106 which more specifically addresses the limitations placed on a court with respect to the appointment of a public fiduciary.

All three cited statutes are linked to the law, which can be read in their entirety by clicking on the statute.

Now let’s look at the case of  In Re Guardianship and Conservatorship of David P. VanPoppelen.  Click on the name to read the opinion.  Click here to read the concurrence/dissent which goes into an interesting issue about suitability, which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss in this post.

In this case, the proposed ward (“David”) nominated June to be his guardian and conservator.  He did so both in his power of attorney and patient advocate designation, and he did so when he was questioned by the court-appointed guardian ad litem.  But the trial court bypassed June by finding that the David was not competent to execute the patient advocate designation and power of attorney when they were executed, and further, the court says “He was similarly incompetent to informally select his fiduciary.”

So my complaint with this holding is that while I think the court was certainly within its power to invalidate a power of attorney and patient advocate designation based on a finding of lack of capacity at the time of execution; and to bypass June as conservator by finding, in accordance with MCL 700.5409, that David lacked the ability to “make an intelligent choice” at the time of his verbal nomination; because MCL 700.5313 (the guardianship law) does not include a provision that allows the court to make a verbal nomination contingent on the existing mental capacity of the proposed ward, to my thinking, June should have been given the priority in the guardianship matter.

In conclusion, although I think this court provided an imperfect analysis, I appreciate the opportunity to review the law as it relates to this important question.

Test of Capacity is a Function of Complexity

Party A argued that because a person executed a financial power of attorney and patient advocate designation in June of 2013, the trial court should have found that said person must have been competent to execute a shareholder’s proxy signed in December of that same year. But the trial court found otherwise.

In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeals says: Not only is it reasonable for the trial court to have concluded that the person’s capacity diminished in the intervening months, but – wait for it –  – –  it is also true that a proxy is a different thing than a power of attorney and therefore the test for capacity is not the same.

That, my friends, is a proposition that is commonly argued, but heretofore not so clearly stated in Michigan law. The proposition that the test of capacity is a function of the complexity of the decision being challenged comes up in litigation all the time. And this is a published decision.  (emphasis added)

Menhennick Family Trust v Timothy Menhennick (click on the name to read the case) purports to be about the meaning of a statute in the Business Corporation Act, but the holding primarily turns on the issue of capacity. Several large chunks of this relatively short opinion clearly state the rules relating to a finding of capacity and how that test can vary with the decision at issue.  Well worth the read.

This is an important decision for probate litigators. I know I will be citing this decision in cases to come, and I am sure others will as well.

Summary Affirmed in Undue Influence Case

In Re Margaret Krum Trust is an unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals dealing with undue influence. [Click on the name to read the case.]  This is a case that was handled by our firm.  We represented the appellee.

Two sisters were cut out of their mother’s trust, and contested the validity of the document when their mother died. They originally pled undue influence and lack of capacity, but withdrew the incapacity claim after discovery was complete.  Our client, the Trustee, brought a motion for summary disposition on the remaining claim of undue influence, and prevailed.  The appeal was from that order.

In affirming the trial court, the COA addresses two points worth noting:

First, the COA says that the existence of a financial power of attorney nominating the alleged undue influencer as agent is sufficient to establish the element of a fiduciary relationship for the purpose of giving rise to the presumption of undue influence, even when there is no evidence that the nominated agent ever exercised any authority under the document.

Second, the COA holds that summary disposition can be granted in an undue influence case even when the presumption of undue influence has been established. This appears to be an accurate statement of the law, even though other panels of the COA have, at times, held otherwise.

If you read the case you will note that the COA deals with the issue of after discovered evidence in the context of a motion for reconsideration. Kind of an interesting twist in this case, if you’re looking for more.

And if you read the case you also learn that the scrivener of the contested document was our friend and colleague Danielle Streed. Thanks for your help in this matter Danielle.

Finally, our own Drummond Black did all the heavy lifting on the MSD and COA briefs. Thanks D. You’re the best!

Great Facts and Experts Can’t Survive Summary

An unpublished opinion today that looks at the question of when expert opinions are sufficient to create a question of fact, versus when they remain mere speculation; in the context of a motion for summary disposition.

In In Re Jeannine A. Palazzo Irrevocable Trust (click on the name to read the case), the attorney/trustee failed to inform beneficiaries of his activities in relation to an irrevocable life insurance trust (an “ILIT”) established for their benefit by an aunt. During the years leading up to the aunt/settlor’s death, the liquidity in the ILIT was depleted to the point of near insolvency.  This prompted the attorney/trustee to liquidate the policy for $36,000 and by doing so give up the $500,000 death benefit. As it turns out, he did this just days before the death of the aunt/settlor.

The successor trustee sued attorney/trustee for breach, and presented testimony of an expert estate planning lawyer and an accountant, both of whom opined that had the attorney/trustee performed his fiduciary duties with respect to informing the beneficiaries, the beneficiaries could have taken steps to protect their interests and potentially preserved the policy so as to receive some or all of the death benefit.

An Interesting Question

The trustee/attorney moved for summary disposition in the trial court and prevailed on the argument that merely speculating that the beneficiaries could have or might have taken steps to alter the outcome is insufficient, if you don’t explain what they would have done and when.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, adopting the proposition that merely speculating that something could have been done is insufficient to create a question of fact sufficient to survive summary disposition.

An Uncomfortable Result

A central premise to trust law is that beneficiaries are empowered to protect their interests by being provided information. A trustee protects itself by providing that information.  When a trustee fails to provide the required information, the law holds the trustee liable for the resulting damages and does not allow the trustee the protection of time barriers to claims that would otherwise arise.

For a court to conclude that although a trustee breached its duties by failing to provide the required information, but that the trustee is nonetheless absolved of liability on summary disposition even where experts have opined that something could have been done had the information been provided, just feels wrong.

Conclusion

Bottom line is the beneficiaries lost on summary because they did not specifically state what could have been done to alter the outcome had the missing information been provided. While that seems like a fine line to draw; that is the line that worked in this case, and a line litigators will want to remember when they need to make the same distinction in future matters.

They say it is an ill-wind that blows no one good, and no doubt there is one trustee/attorney who will be full of Thanksgiving today.

Opinion puts Fees of Former PR’s (and their Attorneys) at Risk

If you are a lawyer who handles probate estate administration, you will want to take note of this unpublished Court of Appeals opinion. The gravamen of this decision is that a claim for fees by a personal representative who has been removed or who resigns, will be barred unless it is filed within four months of their removal or resignation; and the same would be true of the fees for legal services or other professional services provided to the former PR.

In In Re Estate of Jack Edward Busselle (click on name to read the case), the Court of Appeals construes the provisions of MCL 700.3803 (click here to read the statute) that address time limits to claims that arise after the decedent’s death.

MCL 700.3803(2) says that such claims must be filed within 4 months, but MCL 700.3803(3)(c) says that time limit does not apply to:

(c) Collection of compensation for services rendered and reimbursement of expenses advanced by the personal representative or by an attorney, auditor, investment adviser, or other specialized agent or assistant for the personal representative of the estate.

What this case holds is that the term “the personal representative” as used in MCL 700.3803(3)(c) does not include a former personal representative, and therefore a former personal representative has four months from the date of their removal or resignation to file a claim for services. This statutory construction would then impose the same time limit on claims from professionals, including lawyers, who did work for the former PR.

This case should probably be published since it appears to be an issue of first impression and relies on no prior authority for this interpretation of the law. The COA’s interpretation seems to present a malpractice trap for lawyers who have clients who resign or are removed as PR and who take more than four months to file a claim  for their client’s fees.  The law as construed in this case also would present a time bar for lawyers who represent clients who resign or are removed and PR, and who do not file a claim for their own fees within the four month window.

In any event, it has been a while since I have seen my old friend Tom Trainer who acted as successor PR in this matter, and who prevailed as Appellee in this case. Nice to know Tom is still out there stirring things up.

PR Appointment for Estate with No Assets

Here’s a case that’s worth filing away for those who do probate litigation and estate administration. It’s unpublished, but addresses an issue that comes up not infrequently.  The holding is that a probate court cannot deny a petition to appoint a personal representative on the grounds that the estate has no assets.

In In Re Estate of Janet Kapp (click on name to read case), the trial court denied a petition to appoint a personal representative on the grounds that there were no known assets to be administered. The COA reversed and remanded, holding that there is no basis in EPIC to support the trial court’s decision.  The COA says:

Instead, the court concluded that the appointment of a personal representative was unnecessary because there were no assets in the estate to probate.  In doing so, however, the probate court did not cite statutory authority that allows a court to deny the appointment of a nominated personal representative on those grounds.  To the contrary, a court rule provides that personal representatives do not need to provide notice to creditors when “[t]he estate has no assets[.]” MCR 5.208(D)(3)(a). It follows that personal representatives can be appointed even when the estate has no assets.

There are many reasons to open an estate which have nothing to do with distribution of assets. This is a good decision, and although unpublished, should provide an outline for the argument when attorneys are faced with this misunderstanding in their cases.

Unpublished Decision Demonstrates Difficulties Inherent in Setting Aside Settlements

The process by which this issue arises is somewhat confusing, but basically the facts are that:

Parent has two children. Original trust leaves residue to his children 50-50; and if either child predeceases, the share of predeceased child goes to the descendants of the deceased child.

One child dies and then the parent becomes demented, subject to guardianship and conservatorship. Conservator petitions the trial court for instruction on the validity of a trust amendment which may or may not have been signed. No signed copy is found. The purported amendment was made after the death of the child, and if valid, would leave the entire residue to the surviving child and nothing to the descendants of the deceased child.

Matter is mediated and the surviving child and descendants of the deceased child reach an agreement regarding the division of the residue, which agreement is approved by the trial court.

Subsequently, the child who would have received everything under the purported trust amendment announces that he has found the signed amendment, and seeks to set aside the order approving the settlement pursuant to MCR 2.612(C)(1).

The trial court denies the motion to set aside the order, and the Court of Appeals affirms.

In Re Frank M. Lambrecht, Jr. Trust (click on name to read the case) is unpublished, but I think it does a reasonably good job looking at what it takes to set aside a settlement agreement, and probably gets the right result in what is no doubt a very close case.

There are several grounds on which the agreement (or more accurately, the court order adopting the agreement) is challenged, all of which come under MCR 2.612(C)(1).

MCR 2.612(C)(1)(a) – Mutual Mistake.  Court of Appeals holds that while it may well have been a mutual mistake of a material fact that no signed amendment existed, the parties all knew that it was possible that one might subsequently be found, and that possibility was presumably factored into the value they placed on the case when they settled.  So, unlike some other types of orders, an order approving a settlement agreement has already factored in the possibility of this type of mistake = no relief here.

MCR 2.612(C)(1)(b) – After Discovered Material Evidence.  The Court of Appeals says that the child challenging the settlement agreement is correct that the discovery of the signed amendment would meet most of the requirements necessary to obtain relief under MCR 2.612(C)(1)(b), but on these facts this contesting child fails to meet the burden of showing that it could not have been found with “reasonable diligence.”   The child seeking relief says the signed amendment was found in his parent’s desk drawer, but that he chose not to look there while his parent was alive, out of respect for that parent’s privacy.  Basically, his deference on this point may have been admirable but does not obviate his obligation to use due diligence.  There is no question he had access, and presumably the desk drawer would have been an obvious place to look.  So that won’t work.

MCR 2.612(C)(1)(e) and (f) – No Longer Equitable and Other Grounds for Relief.  The Court of Appeals notes that the settlement was not solely based on the fact that a signed amendment was missing. Rather, the settlement negotiations included other issues, including whether, even if the signed amendment were found, the amendment would be set aside for lack of capacity or undue influence.  In light of the other variables in play during the settlement process, it could not be said that the resulting agreement is no longer fair.

Conclusion. This case neatly presents the issue of how and why an order approving a settlement agreement is different from other types of court orders when it comes to seeking relief under MCR 2.612(C)(1); and neatly applies the law to facts that make the decision a close call on several grounds.

 

Terror Clause Canaries Don’t Fly

In this unpublished decision from the Court of Appeals, a potential litigant filed a “petition for instruction” which asked the trial judge to decide the question of: If a subsequent petition to modify the trust were filed, whether such a petition would be deemed to violate the trust’s terror clause and thereby cause petitioner to forfeit her interest in the trust?

Click here to read: In Re Robert E. Whitton Revocable Trust

Curiously, a trial judge saw fit to issue such an opinion. In this case, the trial court determined that the petition for instruction did not itself violate the terror clause, but that a subsequent petition to modify the trust would violate the clause and that the petitioner had no probable cause to bring that petition.

A terror clause (aka “no contest clause”) is a provision in a will or trust that says a beneficiary will be penalized (typically the penalty is to lose their interest in the estate) if they contest the will or trust at issue.

Michigan law on terror clauses is pretty straightforward and is spelled out in MCL 700.7113 (for trusts) an in MCL 700.2518 and 700.3905 (for wills). (click on the statutes to read them). They are generally enforceable, but will not be enforced in cases where the party had “probable cause” to initiate the proceeding.

Litigants, like the one in this case, have long attempted is to come up with a way of having a court determine whether they will be penalized if they bring an action before actually doing so. They want to know in advance whether they will be deemed to have triggered the terror clause if they file a petition being contemplated.  These efforts don’t work.  Several years ago, the Court of Appeals issued a published decision in a case handled by our firm in which it declared that trial courts lack authority to rule on such speculative matters for the reasons that the issue is non-justiciable (not ripe, as it were).  Click here to read that prior post.  Basically, the appellate courts have said that if you want to contest a document, you have to take your chances.  So, it’s no surprise that the Court of Appeals held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to decide this case, and vacated that part of the trial court’s decision.  And it’s curious that, in light of the clear law on this point, the trial judge in this matter thought that such an action could be decided.

This case also offers the opportunity to discuss another, perhaps dicier, aspect of our terror clause statutes, which is that the imposition of a penalty is not necessarily limited to proceedings in which the validity of document at issue is being contested. Rather these statutes indicate that a terror clause can be written to impose a penalty for initiating any type of proceeding relating to the trust or will.  So, in this case, the anticipated subsequent petition was being framed as a “petition to modify” a trust to conform with an amendment that the settlor had purportedly had drafted, but never got around to signing.  The appellants in this case were hoping to escape the imposition of the terror clause penalty on the idea that the subsequent petition they were considering wouldn’t actually (per their argument) contest the validity of the trust, but would only inquire as to the validity of an unsigned amendment.  Likewise the respondents in this matter argued that the act of bringing a petition for instruction was itself a violation of the terror clause.  The point of all this is that Michigan law allows for very broad terror clause provisions, including, presumably, a provision that would penalize a litigant for bringing a petition for instruction, or that says a petition seeking to recognize an unsigned amendment is a violation. The opinion in this case indicates only that the terror clause in this trust was “lengthy.”  It is not clear what the scope of this lengthy terror clause is, but it is seems possible at least that a terror clause could have been written which would have been unambiguous on these specific issues.

So, the points here are that (1) There are no terror clause canaries – no free bites at the apple. When a terror clause is in play, you take your chances.  And (2) A terror clause may be written to impose a penalty for initiating any form of proceeding which relates to the will or trust at issue.  The scope of the terror clause itself is significant in deciding how to proceed in cases where these provisions are in play.