T&E Litigation Newsletter - Kaiden v. Zimonja

May 2012Advisories
In Kaiden v. Zimonja, 81 Mass. App. Ct. 1131 (Apr. 27, 2012), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court addressed the sufficiency of allegations of undue influence.

The decedent executed a will, trust, and deed pursuant to which she left a share of her assets, including her home, to a church.  The defendant, who is an attorney and elder at the church, was named as the executor and successor trustee, and the decedent also gave him a power of attorney some years later.  After the decedent’s death, her heirs brought suit against the defendant, claiming among other things that he had unduly influenced the decedent.  The heirs alleged that the decedent’s estate plan was inconsistent with her prior representations to them, that the church’s requests for money made her uncomfortable, and that she lacked sufficient intellectual acuity to understand the import of the documents.  
The defendant moved to dismiss the undue influence and other claims, which included claims for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of a confidential relationship with the decedent, breach of a promise to the decedent to care for her and enable her to remain at home, tortious interference with expectancy, and legal malpractice. The superior court granted the motion to dismiss, characterizing the claims as speculative, and the Appeals Court affirmed.

Regarding the undue influence claim, the Appeals Court held that the heirs had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because there was no allegation that the defendant had drafted the estate planning documents or had advised the decedent with respect to them (“the most that can be said from the complaint is that the defendant notarized the decedent’s signature on her will, trust, and deed”), that the defendant had a relationship with the decedent such that he was able to and did influence her estate planning, and that the defendant had profited personally.  The Court noted as significant that the heirs had sued the defendant in his individual capacity, failing to name the church as a defendant or to allege that the defendant was responsible for the church’s actions and inactions.

Regarding the tortious interference with expectancy claim, which requires a showing that a defendant intentionally interfered with a plaintiff’s expectancy in some unlawful way, the Court held that “[i]n the absence of facts suggesting the defendant advised the decedent as to her estate plan or sought to influence her gifting in any way, much less an unlawful way, the claim correctly was dismissed.”

This update was authored by Mark Swirbalus, a Director in the firm's Probate & Fiduciary Litigation Group. For questions or additional information on this topic, please contact Mark at [email protected] or any member of the Probate & Fiduciary Litigation Group.
The above information should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own lawyer concerning your situation and any specific legal questions you may have.

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