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Court of Appeals Recognizes Doctrine of Partial Invalidity of Wills Subject to Fraud or Undue Influence

On May 19, 2011, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided In re Turpin, No. 10-PR-707, slip op. (D.C. May 19, 2011) which, inter alia, recognizes the doctrine that a will may be declared partially invalid (as opposed to wholly invalid) if it was the result of fraud or undue influence. The issue of whether a will may be declared partially invalid under such circumstances was an issue of first impression for the Court.

In the proceedings below, the trial court found, inter alia, that the testator did not read the subject will before executing it and lacked knowledge of certain of its provisions. In re Turpin, slip op. at 3-4. The trial court found that the testator executed the subject will at the age of eighty-two while admitted to a hospital where he was in a weakened and sometimes confused state. Id. at 2-3. It also found that the testator was convinced to execute the will by misrepresentations and false statements (resulting in fraud and undue influence) by an individual who was designated in the will as a beneficiary and as the testator’s personal representative. Id. at 3, 5. The testator died two months after executing the will. Id. at 4. Attempting to give the testator’s actual intentions appropriate effect, the trial court embraced the doctrine of partial invalidity notwithstanding that the trial court was not aware of any District of Columbia law addressing whether a will may be declared partially invalid (as opposed to wholly invalid) if it was the result of fraud or undue influence. Id. at 5-6. The trial court therefore invalidated provisions of the will that it concluded were the result of fraud and undue influence including, inter alia, provisions designating as beneficiary and personal representative the individual who had made the misrepresentations and false statements. Id. at 6. The trial court also decided issues about how to distribute interests under the partially invalidated will. Id.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals began by considering whether the will should be invalidated in its entirety because the testator lacked knowledge of certain of its provisions. Id. at 7-10. Citing opinions from other jurisdictions, the Court noted that “[t]here is language in a number of probate cases that appears to support” the proposition that a will should be invalidated in its entirety if the testator did not know all of its contents. Id. at 8. The Court was persuaded, however, “that the correct reading of such cases is that a will may not be admitted to probate where a purported testator is entirely ignorant of the contents of his will, indicating a lack of testamentary intent.” Id. (emphasis added). The Court declined to invalidate the will in its entirety, noting that the trial court determined that the testator had testamentary intent. Id. at 9-10.

Next, the Court considered “whether to recognize the doctrine of partial invalidity of a will affected by fraud or undue influence.” Id. at 11. In framing the issue, the Court noted that the majority of jurisdictions have endorsed the doctrine of partial invalidity “which allows a court to invalidate portions of the will that are the result of undue influence or fraud and leave the other portions of the will if such other portions are separable from the invalid ones.” Id. It also noted that the doctrine does not apply “when it will ‘defeat the manifest intent of the testator, interfere with the general scheme of distribution, or work an injustice to other heirs.'” Id. at 12 (quoting 79 Am. Jur. 2d Wills § 372 (2d ed. 2002)). The Court stated that it was persuaded to recognize the doctrine of partial invalidity because (1) the Court’s “longstanding preference is to give effect to a will, if permissible, so as to avoid intestacy, and to give the intent of the testator full effect unless it is contrary to law,” (2) the Court’s “case law and District of Columbia statutory law both make provision for recognition of a portion of a testamentary instrument in a variety of other contexts,” and (3) “Maryland, to whose common law [the Court] look[s] when there is no controlling District of Columbia law directly on point, has long recognized and applied the doctrine of partial invalidity.” Id. at 12 (internal citation, quotation marks, and footnote omitted).

Finally, having accepted that the will could be partially invalidated, the Court considered determinations by the trial court regarding how to distribute interests under the partially invalidated will. Id. at 13-18. It affirmed the trial court’s determination that the sole remaining designated beneficiary should receive her distribution directly rather than through a trust notwithstanding doubts about the testator’s actual intentions.  Id. at 13-14.  It reversed, however, the trial court’s determination that the invalidated beneficial interest of the individual who made the misrepresentations and false statements passes to the sole remaining designated beneficiary and instead held under controlling precedent that the interest passes by intestacy. Id. at 15-18.

To view the Court of Appeals’ opinion, click here.