Estate of Koontz: Another summary judgment overturned

Estate of Koontz: Another summary judgment overturned

Estate of Koontz is a very recent decision from the San Antonio Court of Appeals.  The trial court in Bandera County had granted summary judgment against a will contestant’s claims of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. The trial court also ordered the contestant to pay the executor $18,029.49 in attorney’s fees, finding the contest was not brought in good faith or with just cause.  The court of appeals reversed the summary judgment ruling and the award of attorney’s fees.

The primary evidence in response to the motion for summary judgment was the affidavit of the contestant.  Because he brought the contest after the will was admitted to probate, he had the burden to prove lack of testamentary capacity. In overturning the summary judgment ruling, the court of appeals noted the following from the contestant’s affidavit:

  •     the decedent suffered from severe bi-polar depression for decades;
  •     the decedent  had several prolonged episodes of paranoid and delusional behavior that lasted for weeks in the months surrounding the will execution;
  •     the decedent began to accuse his devoted wife of over 50 years of having an affair; and
  •     the decedent tried to lease out property he no longer owned.

The court of appeals found the affidavit contained “more than a scintilla” of evidence to raise a genuine issue of fact with regard to the decedent’s testamentary capacity.  The testator’s attempt to lease out property he no longer owned implied that he did not understand the nature of his property, an element of testamentary capacity. The issues regarding his mental stability in the months surrounding the will also provided evidence of a lack of capacity at the time of the will execution:

The pivotal issue is whether the testator had testamentary capacity on the day the will was executed.  However, evidence of the testator’s state of mind at other times can be used to prove his state of mind on the day the will was executed provided the evidence demonstrates a condition affecting his testamentary capacity was persistent and likely was present at the time the will was executed.

The proponent of the will cited deposition testimony by the lawyer who drafted the will and was present at the execution.  As would be expected, the lawyer testified she believed the testator had capacity.  However, she conceded that she would have likely inquired further had she known the testator suffered from bipolar disorder and had experienced delusional episodes. Thus, the lawyer’s opinion was at least partially hedged.

The court of appeals concluded that the contestant had presented enough evidence of lack of capacity to survive summary judgment and proceed to a jury trial. While it is certainly helpful to have more than the sworn testimony of the will contestant, even interested testimony that is specific enough can support a successful contest. At t he summary judgment stage, a trial court is to presume the credibility of witnesses supporting the contest, and all doubts must be resolved in favor of the contestant.  At trial, the jury will make its evaluations of the credibility of the witnesses and make a decision based on the preponderance of the evidence. Since will contests can be inherently unpredictable, the odds are the case will now settle prior to trial.

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