In re Estate of Parrimore: Court of appeals upholds factual findings regarding capacity and undue influence
Texas appellate courts are generally reluctant to overturn trial court factual findings regarding testamentary capacity and undue influence. In re Estate of Parrimore, from the Houston 14th Court of Appeals, is an example. Parrimore involved a trial to the judge (bench trial) of a will contest. The contest involved the usual issues regarding testamentary capacity and undue influence. The evidence at trial was that the testator signed the will only 11 days after being released from the hospital for treatment after a stroke. However, there was also evidence that the testator had begun work on his will long before the stroke and it was consistent with wishes long expressed to friends. The court of appeals noted that there was certainly evidence to suggest the testator may have lacked capacity to execute the will. There was also evidence to support the undue influence claim. However, there was also compelling evidence to the contrary, and the court of appeals noted:
When presented with conflicting evidence, the trial court, as the trier of fact, is the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony. The trial court may believe one witness, disbelieve others, and resolve any inconsistencies in the evidence.
The result is not surprising, given the great weight put on the factual circumstances and credibility of witnesses in will contests. However, the particular facts of this case are interesting. The will was not prepared by a lawyer and the execution was not overseen by a lawyer. Instead, it was prepared by the testator and his wife via a computer program. That isn't particularly unusual these days, although it is not wise. What sounds unusual is that the testator and his wife organized a party at their home for the signing of the will. Family and friends were invited to the party. The testator played pool and circulated around the house talking to guests at the party. He then signed the will in front of witnesses and a notary. Having the will executed after mingling with a group of friends provides a ready group of witnesses familiar with the testator who could testify to his capacity and that he signed voluntarily. On the other hand, the wife's involvement in the drafting and "party" planning provide cause for suspicion, along with the timing of the execution. My guess is that had the judge or a jury decided the will was the product of undue influence or lack of capacity, the court of appeals would have upheld that result as well.