Challenger Fails to Invalidate a Will and Validate Agreement Making Herself the Sole Beneficiary

Elder Law Answers Case Summary.An estate challenger who presented the decedent with an agreement making her the sole beneficiary fails to invalidate the decedent’s will and enforce her agreement, according to the Massachusetts Appellate Court. In the Matter of the Estate of John P. Urban (Mass. App. Ct., No. 22-P-21, February 13, 2022).

John P. Urban, a single man without children, had many friends. A resident of Massachusetts, he regularly wintered in Florida. He stayed in the guest house of his longtime friend, Michelle Finnegan. In 2014, Mr. Urban authorized his close friend Geoff Emerson to be his agent per a durable power of attorney.

Before his death, Mr. Urban executed several wills, culminating in a final 2016 will that named his attorney, Daniel Singleton, as executor. The will benefitted many friends, including Ms. Finnegan, her parents, Dr. Emerson and his wife, and Mr. Urban’s alma mater, Middlebury College. Mr. Urban’s 2016 will also created a scholarship fund with Dr. Emerson as the trustee.

Due to dementia, Mr. Urban moved into a nursing home in Massachusetts. Having expressed concerns to her attorney about possible undue influence, Ms. Finnegan traveled to Massachusetts in 2016 and presented Mr. Urban with an agreement. The agreement made her the executor and exclusive beneficiary of his estate, acknowledging that he had never paid her for her care when he stayed in her guest house.

In April 2019, following Mr. Urban’s death, Mr. Singleton petitioned the court to probate Mr. Urban’s 2016 will and appoint him as Mr. Urban’s personal representative. In June, Ms. Finnegan filed an affidavit opposing the petition, as well as a notice of a claim for millions of dollars against Mr. Urban’s estate. Eleven beneficiaries under the 2016 will objected to Ms. Finnegan’s petition that September. The scholarship fund motioned for summary judgment on the validity of the 2016 will and Ms. Finnegan’s agreement.

The court allowed the motion and ruled in favor of the trust fund. Finding no disputes of material fact, the judge dismissed Ms. Finnegan’s attempt to enforce the 2016 agreement with prejudice and admitted the 2016 will to probate with Mr. Singleton as executor.

On appeal, the court reviews whether genuine issues of material fact existed. Generally, the person contesting the will bears the burden of proving undue influence. However, when a fiduciary participates in a personally beneficial transaction, the burden shifts to the fiduciary. Ms. Finnegan asserted that Dr. Emerson, as a fiduciary, should take on the burden of proof.

Disagreeing with Ms. Finnegan’s argument, the appellate court notes that Mr. Urban’s revision between the previous and final wills did not personally benefit Dr. Emerson. The modification increased the amount to Middlebury College, decreasing the residuary for the scholarship trust for which Dr. Emerson was the trustee. No evidence suggests that Dr. Emerson intruded on the attorney-client relationship between Mr. Singleton and Mr. Upton. Their meetings occurred privately, and Dr. Emerson did not serve as a witness.

Ms. Finnegan fails to demonstrate that Mr. Urban lacked the mental capacity to execute the 2016 will. His caregiver described him as clear-headed and focused, and he recognized his lawyer.

As the record shows that the 2016 agreement Ms. Finnegan presented to the decedent constituted an unnatural disposition, no dispute of material fact exists to prevent summary judgment. The record is insufficient in establishing that Mr. Urban fell out with the other beneficiaries or wanted Ms. Finnegan to be the sole beneficiary. Instead, the evidence cumulatively suggests that Mr. Urban was proud of the scholarship fund, happy to support his alma mater, and cared about many friends.

The lower judge also did not err when it struck a statement from the summary judgment record. The statement, which Ms. Finnegan’s lawyer attempted to add to the record, was similar to a deposition but lacked notice to opposing counsel. An affidavit, rather than an interview transcription, would have been permissible.

Since no material facts could invalidate Mr. Upton’s 2016 will or validate Ms. Finnegan’s 2016 agreement, the lower court’s ruling was correct. The court of appeals affirms.

Read the full opinion.