Many of the sibling estate fights that I come across involve siblings fighting over a parent’s estate. The recent case of Re Fawson Estate is a bit of a twist in that involved siblings fighting over a sibling’s estate.
Margaret Fawson had three brothers. She made a will disinheriting two of her brothers, Jim and Frank.
Margaret asked a friend to recommend a good lawyer because she wanted to make a will that would withstand any challenge by her brothers.
By all outward appearances, Margaret seemed normal. She had a good government job and socialized with friends.
Margaret blamed her brothers for putting their late mother in a nursing home and she accused them of wanting to take their mother’s money. She never forgave them for the role they played and therefore, she wanted them out of her will. None of Margaret’s co-workers or friends thought anything of this. They took Margaret at her word.
Margaret never accepted that her mother had dementia even when the diagnosis was without question. When her mother died, she insisted on an autopsy because she believed her mother had been murdered. The autopsy disclosed that the cause of death to be complications of dementia and probable Alzheimer disease.
Margaret’s thinking when it came to her brothers was mistaken and not based on fact. She really had no reason to blame them for what happened to their mother.
Jim and Frank argued that Margaret’s will could not stand because she was delusional when she made the decision to leave them out of the will.
I must say if Jim and Frank had come into my office, I would have been hesitant to take on the case. The decision does not mention the extent of the estate, but it appears to have been somewhat modest.
Jim and Frank relied on the medical and nursing home records of their late mother to prove their sister’s delusions! Indeed, the mother’s records were filled with instances of Margaret acting in a bizarre fashion when interacting with the nursing home staff for example making requests that she be allowed to take her mother on outings when it was clear beyond doubt that her mother was in no condition to leave the home.
A forensic psychiatrist gave a retrospective assessment that opined that Margaret was suffering from a delusional disorder. However, she also stated that her opinion was speculative at best. She said it was possible Margaret’s delusions impacted on her testamentary capacity but ultimately it was for the judge to decide.
The judge ruled that Margaret’s delusions affected her testamentary capacity and ruled the will invalid. The judge also noted that there is a difference between delusions and errors in judgment.
The case points out that a lawyer taking instructions must carefully review family dynamics with the client who is making a will. If the client says that she wants to leave out a relative the lawyer should ask probing questions to determine the client’s reasons. It is difficult to see how the drafting lawyer in this case could have realized that Margaret’s thinking was delusional. After all, it is not unusual for siblings to not get along.
Perhaps this case is unique to its particular set of facts or maybe it opens the door to creative litigants to build a case challenging a testator’s mistaken and delusional beliefs about them.