When an elderly woman from Portsmouth passed away last year, she left the majority share of her US$1.8 million estate to a man she barely knew. This sparked intense debate from contesting wills lawyers and has led to an ongoing inheritance dispute.
The defendant, a local police officer, has requested that the courts respect and uphold the woman’s will – but multiple parties have petitioned the Rockingham County Superior Court to set aside the document.
Primarily, the arguments against the will are on the grounds that the woman lacked testamentary capacity and created the document under undue influence from the officer.
The petitions being lodged against the defendant allege that he established a “confidential and fiduciary relationship” with the deceased prior to her death. At the age of 93 and diagnosed with dementia, those contesting the will believe she would have been acting with diminished mental capacity and so her will should not be considered valid.
Over the past 12 months, the officer has maintained that while he did establish a platonic relationship with the deceased, he put no pressure on her to change her will.
Some of the parties involved with the inheritance dispute have reportedly proposed a settlement agreement – where the officer would receive a reduced provision while the city’s police and fire departments receive 25 per cent each of what is left after debts and beneficiaries are paid.
However, the case continues to rage on as the defendant has already passed through two separate investigations related to his behaviour. Based on the evidence at the time of these proceedings, the Bureau of Elderly Affairs concluded complaints of undue influence were unfounded.
The inheritance dispute is far from over. The courts now plan to form a three-person investigatory committee to study the matter and make final decisions on the case.
What we can take away from this case
While this is a unique case based in the United States, there are a few takeaways that can benefit those considering estate planning in Australia.
Essentially, the key lesson within this case is regarding testamentary capacity. The primary argument for the prosecution is that because the deceased was diagnosed with dementia, she would have been unable to create a will that properly reflected her true wishes.
This is why it is important to start estate planning early, to prevent common ailments that come with old-age from impacting on your ability to provide for your family.
Another important takeaway is the impact of undue influence. If you believe a family member has been pressured or tricked into changing their will, contact a contesting wills lawyer as soon as possible.