By Jason Stern
The 2012 will of then 93 year old Geraldine Webber was ultimately determined at trial to be the product of Officer Aaron Goodwin’s undue influence over the senile Webber just prior to her death. Officer Goodwin was named the nominated executor and primary beneficiary of the elderly Webber’s multi-million dollar estate. The estate court ruled that Officer Aaron Goodwin unduly influenced the decedent Geraldine Webber over a two year period prior to and including the time of execution of the purported will. In their finding the estate court found undue influence to be the “exertion of influence over another as to take away the free will of the testator, person drafting their will, and substituting another’s will for their own, so that in effect the instrument is not the expression of the wishes of the testator, but the wishes of another.”
Customarily, where a NY estate lawyer can prove that the primary beneficiary assisted in the drafting and/or procuring the NY will, NY estate courts will find a presumption of undue influence which must be rebutted by the party offering the NY will for probate. Where a beneficiary either took the decedent to their attorney to execute a will favoring themselves, and/or paid for the will or was instrumental in the drafting of the purported document, a NY estate lawyer can create such a presumption of undue influence in these often complex and difficult NY estate cases putting the proponent on the back foot.
Here, the estate court found that the decedent’s prior attorney who had drafted Ms. Webber’s prior 2009 will leaving her estate to charities, had himself been accused of allegedly signing checks from the decedent’s bank account to himself in the years prior to the later document’s, purported 2012 execution. The court also found that in the 24 month period prior to the document’s alleged execution Officer Goodwin ingratiated himself into the decedent’s life while investigating her prior attorney’s alleged fraudulent behavior. The estate court also found that Officer Goodwin became deeply involved in the 93 year old, Ms. Webber’s personal finances including often accompanying her to the bank and assisting her in repeatedly accessing her safety deposit box. All the while, voluminous medical charts clearly establish Ms. Webber was suffering from dementia resulting in severe cognitive deficits rendering her vulnerable to exploitation and undue influence.
More disturbingly, the estate court found mountains of cumulative evidence that Officer Goodwin was making frequent, almost daily trips to the decedent’s home during working hours. However, the most damning evidence against Officer Goodwin’s purported will came from the testimony of three independent estate attorneys who each testified that they were contacted by Officer Goodwin to draft a will on behalf of the decedent Ms. Webber, leaving her entire multi-million dollar estate to himself. Each attorney testified that after seeing numerous red flags from Officer Goodwin they each declined to draft the purported will. As such the estate court found that the 93 year old’s 2012 will was procured by the undue influence of Officer Goodwin and was denied probate in favor of a prior 2009 instrument leaving Ms. Webber’s estate to multiple hospitals and charities including but not limited to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Officer Goodwin has since been terminated from the police department.
How NY estate lawyers establish undue influence
In determining undue influence pursuant to the NY estate law, a NY estate lawyer should be prepared to argue and prove several key elements as required by law. For example, as illustrated above, it is always favorable when a NY estate lawyer can show the proponent was instrumental in the purported documents drafting and execution.
Unfortunately, undue influence is seldom practiced openly, but it is, rather, the product of persistent and subtle suggestion imposed upon a weaker mind and calculated, by the exploitation of a relationship of trust and confidence, to overwhelm the victim’s will to the point where it becomes the willing tool to be manipulated for the benefit of another as illustrated above. For example, In Matter of Leeds, 2015 NY Misc Lexis 2582 (Surr Ct: Nassau-2015) the court denied a motion for summary judgment and determined there was a triable of issue of fact to be determined at trial where there was a relationship between the attorney draftsperson and the beneficiary.
As a NY estate lawyer with two decades of experience successfully contesting NY wills, I can tell you undue influence occurs more frequently than anyone would expect. Due to its subtle, insidious nature undue influence often goes unnoticed until it’s too late. The sad truth is that wherever there are elderly individuals without immediate family to protect them, there will always be predators seeking to exert undue influence to relieve them of their NY estate assets.
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 Queens estate lawyers have more than 60 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, Richmond and Dutchess.