Evidence Supports Finding That Man Unduly Influenced Alcoholic Brother

Elder Law Answers Case Summary.A Texas Court of Appeals finds sufficient evidence supported the jury’s conclusion that a man unduly influenced his alcohol-dependent and ill half-brother to leave him the estate. The trial court did not err in admitting expert testimony or allowing a non-expert witness who was a mental health professional to speak to alcohol’s effect on the brain. In Mittelsted v. Meriweather (Tex. App. No. 14-21-00755-CV, February 16, 2023).

Jack McClure, a man who suffered from alcoholism following a decline in his health, left his estate to his half-brother, Donovan Mittelsted. He disinherited all his family except Mr. Mittelsted’s daughter. Mr. McClure’s sisters, Denise McClure Meriwether and Darla McClure Sands, challenged the validity of the will and changes to account beneficiaries.

The jury heard testimony from Mr. McClure’s family members. Several family members suggested that he intended to provide for his whole family rather than leave everything to his half-brother and that he struggled with alcohol abuse toward the end of his life. An expert witness, Dr. Adhia, testified that Mr. McClure’s alcohol dependency, untreated mental health conditions, poor heart health, and impaired ability to perform activities of daily living created a “perfect storm” for undue influence.

At the trial, Mr. Mittelsted objected to some of the testimony of Mr. McClure’s brother-in-law, Ron Sands. Mr. Sands was an experienced mental health professional. Although he was not an expert witness, he opined about the cognitive effects of alcohol.

The jury concluded that Mr. Mittelsted unduly influenced his brother, who lacked testamentary capacity. The trier of fact also found that Mr. Mittelsted defended the will in bad faith without just cause. Mr. Mittelsted appealed.

On review, the appellate court disagrees with Mr. Mittelsted’s claim that Dr. Adhia’s testimony was unreliable, irrelevant, and prejudicial. The trial court reasonably found Dr. Adhia’s testimony reliable based on his knowledge, experience, and review of medical records. Although Dr. Adhia did not review all of Mr. McClure’s many medical records, this goes to the weight of the testimony, not its reliability. Dr. Adhia’s testimony was relevant because it could help the jury decide whether Mr. McClure’s drinking, medical conditions, and ailments affected his mental capacity and susceptibility to undue influence. The probative value outweighed any risk of prejudice.

The trial court was within its discretion to admit the testimony of Mr. McClure’s brother-in-law, Mr. Sands, a mental health professional, even though he was not an expert witness. Any error in admitting his statements would have been harmless as his opinions likely did not control the outcome.

Mr. Mittelsted further argued the evidence failed to support the jury’s findings, that he did not defend the will in good faith and with just cause, and that Mr. McClure was mentally incapacitated. The jury heard testimony that alcohol dependence and physical and mental health conditions could have incapacitated Mr. McClure. The will contained an uncharacteristic misspelling of Mr. McClure’s sister’s last name and neglected to mention his family outside his half-brother in the identification section. Several family members testified that a previous handwritten will on cardboard distributed Mr. McClure’s estate equally to his family.

The evidence supports the jury’s conclusions that Mr. Mittelsted unduly influenced Mr. McClure and defended the will in bad faith. The trial court committed no reversible errors concerning expert testimony. The appellate court affirms.

Read the opinion here.