August 9, 2012
Authored by: Luke Lantta
Let’s just jump right into this one: in 2010, a Houston County, Georgia jury declared that a Will and a Revocable Trust executed by Thomas Hines, Sr., in 2002 were invalid, as they were the product of undue influence.
In Davison v. Hines, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the jury verdict. The reason we just jumped right into the discussion of this case is because undue influence cases are fact-intensive. So, let’s look at the facts that supported the verdict.
– Thomas’s 2001 will left the bulk of his estate to his wife for her life, and upon her death, divided the estate equally between his sons. Thomas’s 2002 will, however, gave Steve Davison and his wife, Deborah, control over Thomas’s assets and estate. Deborah was a granddaughter of Thomas.
– In December 2001, although Thomas didn’t want to move from his home, the Davisons made arrangements to move Thomas into their home.
– The evening that Thomas was moved into the Davisons’s home, the Davisons enlisted a lawyer to draft and oversee Thomas’s execution of a power of attorney, which gave the Davisons control over Thomas’s affairs and property. Steve Davison then used this power of attorney to write two checks to himself: one for $100,000 and another for $150,000.
– Around the same time, Deborah Davison started expressing displeasure with Thomas’s 2001 will, and Steve Davison used a lawyer to begin creating Thomas’s 2002 will and trust.
– The Davisons began isolating Thomas from all but very controlled contact with the rest of the family – even preventing Thomas’s sons from visiting or speaking with their father on more than one occasion.
– The 2002 will and trust were drafted and ready for signature based solely on input from Steve Davison.
– When Thomas met with the Davisons’s attorneys to discuss his testamentary plan, Thomas indicated that he wanted to provide for his wife, Mary, but also stated that whatever Steve and Deborah agreed upon is what he wanted to do. He said he would sign anything Steve and Deborah wanted.
Based on the foregoing evidence, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that sufficient evidence existed for the jury to conclude that a confidential relationship existed between Thomas and the Davisons and that the Davisons took an active role in the planning, preparation, and execution of the 2002 will and trust such that their will was being substituted for that of Thomas’s will in the creation of the documents. Therefore, the evidence was sufficient for a jury to conclude that these documents were the product of undue influence.
Like so many undue influence cases, the plaintiffs also brought a claim that the documents were invalid based on lack of capacity. What’s interesting is that the lack of capacity claim was dismissed at summary judgment in favor of the defendants thus demonstrating that undue influence and lack of capacity are not inextricably intertwined.