The case of Gelber, Co-Executor Estate of Beverly E. Gelber v. Glock in the Virginia Supreme Court provides an illustration of the evidence needed for an undue influence claim to get to a jury.
The Facts: Daughter Changes Will at the 11th Hour
Beverly Gelber (“Gelber”) moved to the Richmond area and became very close with her daughter Meryl Glock (“Meryl”), as Meryl helped Gelber often. Gelber was then diagnosed with colon cancer, which led to Meryl and another sister to seek changes in Gelber’s estate plan, which had treated each of Gelber’s five children equally. One attorney was so alarmed at the haste with which Meryl wanted to execute the documents that he denied the work. An attorney eventually drafted documents conveying Gelber’s home and personal property to Meryl, but he was kept in the dark as to Meryl’s intentions, and didn’t investigate the situation around Gelber's impending death. Gelber signed the documents in the hospital with a patient advocate present.
The Suit: Mother Lacked Capacity
Gelber’s children who objected to that transfer brought suit and offered a physician as an expert to say that Gelber was in a “state of delirium” during her entire hospitalization, including the time she signed the transfer documents. Evidence was also presented that Gelber reportedly told the caregiver at a life care community that she was upset by the situation, felt exploited by Meryl, and was unable to get Meryl to return various items she was concerned about. Gelber even hired a law firm to help her regain her home and personal property.
The Opinion: Mother Was the Victim of Undue Influence
The Supreme Court said the executors assembled enough evidence to support a claim of undue influence against Meryl based on weakness of mind, inadequate consideration, suspicious circumstances and a confidential relationship. A reasonable juror could conclude that “Meryl obtained Mrs. Gelber’s home and its contents for grossly inadequate consideration as well as under circumstances of suspicion,” Justice McClanahan wrote. “In contrast to Mrs. Gelber’s prior reliance on legal and financial advisors and involvement of all her children, she executed documents that were inconsistent with her estate plan without the benefit of counsel or discussion with her other children,” McClanahan wrote. The arrangements were made hastily and kept secret from three of Gelber’s children and also from Meryl’s husband, the court said. The evidence also supported the existence of a confidential relationship between Gelber and Meryl, the court explained.
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Editorial Assistance By: Michael Gee – Law Clerk