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The Case of the Family Feud: The Verdict

Sisters at odds after one accuses the other of mismanagement and fraud.

As its first item of business, the court found that Jane, despite her poor health, was competent when she wrote her new will and named Wendy as executor.

The court then turned to the issue of whether Wendy had used undue influence to get the trust written in a way that favored her. To show undue influence was a difficult legal hurdle. Was there enough evidence to show that Jane’s free will had been overcome by Wendy’s actions at the time the documents were signed? Wendy’s actions had to be seen as coercing Jane in a way that destroyed her independent ability to act.

To come to a decision, the court drew conclusions from circumstantial evidence. Looking at the petition that Jane and Wendy filed against Susan in April 1991, the court decided that their allegations had no basis in fact. The court said that Zal’s gift-giving was consistent with the advice of his attorney, and the attempt to blame Susan for the unequal gifts appeared “contrived.” Similarly, the court found the claim that Susan had committed a breach of trust by paying herself for managing Zal’s company to be a complete mischaracterization.

The court noted that “the trouble began with Wendy’s anger over the fact that Susan’s side of the family had received $10,000 more in gifts from Zal than her side” and found it significant that Jane went to an attorney about this rather than talking to Susan first. Jane had no logical reason to be so hostile to Susan—but Wendy did, especially because the two sisters had never gotten along well. Looking at all the evidence together, the court concluded that Wendy was the “only source of the irresponsible, unfounded allegations of wrongdoing by Susan that turned Jane against her.”

The court also relied on a doctor’s testimony that Jane’s deteriorating condition left her vulnerable at the time she changed her will and trust to such “undue influence.” The court also decided Wendy had created a “siege mentality” in Jane, in which Susan was painted as “hostile, threatening, self-serving and selfish.” The court found that Wendy had convinced Jane that only Wendy knew the truth; contrary opinions could not be trusted. Wendy’s continuing misrepresentations to her mother caused the break in the relationship between Susan and Jane. Wendy’s denials of influencing Jane were “self-serving and not credible,” the court concluded.

On Dec. 10, 2002, Judge Sutro of the Superior Court of Marin County held that Wendy’s actions caused Susan and her family’s disinheritance. Though Jane was previously found to be legally competent when she wrote her new will, the court still considered her to be psychologically controlled by Wendy. The judge ruled that the documents executed by Jane were void, leaving Susan’s inheritance from Jane’s estate intact. Wendy appealed in May 2005, but the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.

Despite Susan’s decisive victory and a partial distribution of the money in the trust (the court held back some of the money to cover possible further legal action), Wendy has continued to pursue various appeals. The case is ongoing in probate court. Susan, about to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary, believes the case will not be fully settled in her lifetime.

Do you agree with the verdict? Share your thoughts below in Community Commentary.

Robin Gerber is a lawyer and the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.

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