Posted By Larry Tolchinsky on September 2, 2015
If a decedent’s children, parents, or siblings are seriously concerned that their family member was victimized and that otherwise they would have inherited his estate, then they may have a basis for filing a will contest on undue influence grounds. See, Watts v. Newport, 149 Fla. 181, 6 So.2d 829 (1941).
What is Undue Influence when Family is Disinherited?
When a will has an inequality among beneficiaries, and family members are excluded or minimized in the estate’s distribution while the majority of the property goes to a stranger or newcomer to the decedent’s life, then the probate courts will consider these circumstances to suggest undue influence upon the decedent. It then becomes the burden of the main beneficiary to refute the presumption that undue influence was exerted upon the testator and that this is the reason this beneficiary is inheriting the property. In re Donnelly’s Estate, 137 Fla. 459, 188 So. 108 (1938).
It’s assumed that family members will be named as beneficiaries in a will; this is considered traditional or “natural disposition.”
The Case of the Religious Sect as Major Beneficiary
Here’s an example of a Florida will cutting out the testator’s family members, and their successful challenge of that Last Will and Testament as being the result of undue influence. In the case of In re Estate of Hee, 252 So. 2d 846 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1971), a gentleman named Louis Hee lived alone in Dade County, Florida, for many years. Mr. Hee was a senior citizen who was not in good health. In fact, he was bedridden for a long time prior to his passing, and his good friend Stephen Bertok took care of him. None of Louis Hee’s family lived near to him.
In the few months prior to his death in May 1969, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses began visiting Mr. Hee. They brought reading material. They talked with him at length about their religious beliefs. Various members of their sect came to see him. Two of the visitors were ministers: John Hartley, Jr. and William H. Payne.
Louis Hee, meanwhile, was a Christian and a member of a Florida Christian church. As frail as he was, he attended Easter Sunday services at his church not long before he died. There was no dispute that Louis Hee was never a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He had no connection to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
Nevertheless, in March 1969, an attorney who represented the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was asked by John Hartley (who had visited Mr. Hee at his home) to go to see Louis Hee. Hartley instructed the lawyer that he was to prepare a will for Louis Hee and that this was something that needed to be done immediately. The lawyer said he couldn’t go that fast, so Hartley prepared a will himself for Louis Hee to sign. Together with two members of the sect, Hartley went to Louis Hee’s home and had him sign this will.
The document, executed on March 8, 1969, named Hartley and Payne as co-executors of Hee’s estate, and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania as sole beneficiary. There was also language that Louis Hee’s funeral service was to be conducted in accordance with Jehovah’s Witness traditions, with a Jehovah’s Witness minister conducting the funeral service and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society overseeing the service. As soon as it was signed and witnessed, the will was shipped from Florida to the Brooklyn, New York, offices of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
The will sat in their Brooklyn offices without any Hee family member being aware of its existence, much less his friends or the minister of his church, until Mr. Hee died almost three months later. He wasn’t even given a copy of the will for his personal records.
Jehovah’s Witness Will Admitted to Probate; Hee’s Brother and Sisters File Will Contest
The March 1969 will was promptly filed with a Florida probate court. There was no language addressing Mr. Hee’s Christian faith, nor was there language in the will that left anything to his church. The will as admitted to probate left the entire estate of Louis Hee to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, a Pennsylvania Corporation, the parent organization of the religious organization known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Hee’s siblings, Juliana, Maria, Bertha and Sandor, were forced to file a will contest challenging the will as being the product of undue influence.
The Florida probate judge found that the March 1969 will was “unnatural in its content and disposition,” and that it was “not the free expression of the decedent, Louis Hee,” but was the “expression and desire of those who procured the execution thereof,” i.e., the members of the religious sect Jehovah’s Witnesses who had visited him.
The judge declared the will to be null and void., and revoked its admission to probate.
Do You Suspect Undue Influence in a Florida Last Will and Testament?
If you think that your loved one was victimized by someone and that the will admitted (or sought to be admitted) to probate is the product of undue influence, the experienced Florida probate lawyers at Sackrin & Tolchinsky, P.A. are knowledgeable, aggressive, and ready to help you contest the will in probate court. If you have any questions about undue influence over a Florida Will, or other probate litigation, please do not hesitate to call us.