The Third Department, reversing Surrogate’s Court, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Reynolds Fitzgerald, determined the respondent’s (decedent’s niece’s) objections to the probate of the will submitted by petitioner (decedent’s agent) should not have been dismissed. Decedent, in a 2011 will, made respondent the sole beneficiary of his estate. Subsequently decedent executed a 2015 will making petitioner the sole beneficiary of his estate. The Third Department found summary judgment dismissing respondent’s objections was inappropriate because there was conflicting evidence of decedent’s testamentary capacity and petitioner’s undue influence:
… [T]he witnesses affirmed that beginning in late 2014, decedent’s personal hygiene declined, he acted unusual, was confused and forgetful. The medical records, spanning from the fall of 2014, including a contemporaneous record four days subsequent to the execution of the 2015 will, are replete with observations that decedent refused to care for himself resulting in numerous hospitalizations for hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia and urinary tract infections. The records contain multiple entries that decedent suffered from an altered mental state, confusion and was incoherent. This evidence is sufficient to raise an issue of fact regarding decedent’s testamentary capacity … . * * *
Much of the evidence submitted by respondent on the issue of testamentary capacity is also relevant to the issue of undue influence … . Respondent’s witnesses all affirm that while residing at the assisted living facility, decedent was lethargic, frequently complained of being ill, slept a good deal, was unresponsive and was in a weakened state. Decedent’s closest friend described him as being easily manipulated, and stated that he was especially vulnerable to petitioner, with whom he was infatuated. In presenting evidence demonstrating decedent’s physical decline, coupled with his increasing confusion and personality changes, respondent has raised an issue as to whether decedent was unduly influenced by petitioner … . Matter of Linich, 2023 NY Slip Op 00250, Third Dept 1-19-23
Practice Point: Summary judgment is rarely appropriate in a contested probate proceeding. Here conflicting evidence of decedent’s testamentary capacity and petitioner’s undue influence precluded summary judgment dismissing respondent’s objections to probate.