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Overturning a suspect will: a case study

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One issue that worries many families of older people is an elderly parent’s susceptibility to a new younger spouse, who might end up upsetting all the carefully laid estate plans that the family has established.

That was one of the problems in the Robin Williams estate fight, even though Williams was just 63 and apparently of sound mind when he passed away. It’s a huge problem for those who are even older.

A Florida appeals court recently allowed a probate court to invalidate a will that had been written under undue influence of the new younger spouse. That’s good news for families who are worried about this type of situation, and the facts of the case provide a good illustration of how families can prevent their plans from being destroyed.

These are the facts in the Florida case: In 2006, Richard Blinn the owner of a yacht brokerage, began suffering from progressive dementia, which didn’t prevent Demetra Blinn from marrying him a year later, when Richard was 82, becoming his fourth wife. In April 2008, Richard Blinn signed a new will leaving everything to his new bride.  By June 2011 Richard was found to be totally incapacitated.  His daughter Patty Carlman was appointed as his guardian. 

Richard Blinn died in 2012. When his will was presented in probate court, Carlman learned that it left everything to Demetra, even though his earlier wills had left everything to Patty. The probate court invalidated the April 2008 will. After Demetra Blinn challenged that ruling, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the invalidation of the will.

The outcome in this case appears to be the best result for the family, and given the deterioration in Richard Blinn’s mental capacity, could be considered what he would have wanted. How did they manage to get the will leaving everything to Blinn’s new wife overturned? There are two basic factors involved: undue influence and mental capacity. The Blinn family carefully presented evidence in both areas. Here’s how they did it:

Undue Influence

  • They saved a voice mail accidentally left by Demetra, in which she screamed at Richard that his daughter Patty was stealing from him.

  • They presented evidence that Demetra had requested beneficiary changes to Richard’s life insurance.

  • Although Demtra claimed no knowledge of the new will until the day it was drafted, they were able to present evidence that she had sent the drafting attorney two letters from doctors asserting that both she and Richard were of sound mind. “This conduct suggests that, on her own,” the appellate court ruled, “appellant was trying to overcome legitimate concerns about the circumstances surrounding the April, 2008 will.”

  • They demonstrated that the testimony of the two lawyers involved in creating the new will, a referring attorney and a drafting attorney, were in conflict with each other. According to the appellate court: “If both lawyers are to be believed, Richard’s April 2008 will drafted itself and miraculously appeared at the drafting lawyer’s office on April 2.”

  • They found that Demetra had requested that Richard’s law firm draft a durable power of attorney in her favor and to send her all of Richard’s estate planning documents. The Florida probate court declared that if she “were so bold as to openly display such influence over [Richard], then the court could reasonably infer that similar or greater influence was occurring in the dark during their marriage.”

Diminished Capacity

  • The family demonstrated that Richard Blinn had been making questionable decisions long before he even married Demetra.

  • They presented stories that he had been playing mail-away scam lotteries in foreign countries for at least five years, and had even convinced himself that he had won money through them.

  • The judge found that Richard had made “imprudent financial decisions, which caused his local yacht brokerage business to decline significantly.”

  • In sum, the court ruled that he was “susceptible to undue influence due to his declining physical state, anxiety disorders depression, and progressive dementia.”

So at this point, the Blinn family has won. But be warned: Even when a will is overturned, the spouse is still entitled to a share of the estate, usually one third to one half of the proceeds.