Appeals Court Affirms $1 Million Verdict Against Son of Decedent in Massachusetts Estate Litigation Case

The Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a verdict holding the son and power of attorney of the decedent accountable for a million dollars after he removed his father’s girlfriend as the beneficiary of several accounts.  The long-time girlfriend of 38 years and the defendant son were to both benefit from the division of his estate.  The father had named his girlfriend and his son as the beneficiaries and joint tenants on several bank accounts and executed a will in 2013 dividing the estate nearly evenly between the girlfriend and the son. 

Prior to the execution of the will, the girlfriend provided care for the estate owner from 2005 to 2013 after a stroke.  His health was in a general state of decline until 2013, when it became significantly worse following a diagnosis of Stage IV pancreatic cancer.  The girlfriend sought help from the son, since she was unable to care for the father.  She provided the son several financial records, and the father named his son as power of attorney.

After this occurred, the son began transferring several of the bank accounts to his name and his father’s name only.  Some of these transactions included his father, but others did not.  Evidence presented during the trial supported the girlfriend’s claim that the owner of the estate did not know about some of these transfers.  The son also sought new counsel to help prepare a new will for his father.  A second will was executed, leaving the entire estate to the son, less than a month after the first will was executed.

The girlfriend filed suit against the son in the following year, after the testator’s death.  She alleged the son had unlawfully interfered with an expected gift, had undue influence over his father, and had converted assets unlawfully.  The jury agreed with the girlfriend’s claim that she had been deprived of the expected gifts and awarded a verdict of over a million dollars.  The defendant appealed for denial of a directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV).

A plaintiff claiming unlawful interference with an expected gift must show the defendant intentionally interfered with the gift in an unlawful way, that she or he had a legally protected interest, and that the interference continued until the expected gift would have been issued.  The son asserted on appeal that the girlfriend did not sufficiently prove undue influence nor continued interference until his father’s death.  The Appeals Court disagreed, determining there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find for the girlfriend.  The son used his fiduciary power to his own benefit by removing the girlfriend as beneficiary and transferring money out of an account that had previously listed her as a beneficiary.  Even though there was conflicting evidence about whether or not the father was aware of these transfers, the girlfriend provided testimony for the jury to consider that the testator was told and upset at the changes made by his son.

The court also found there was plenty of evidence for the jury to find there was undue influence.  The father was infirm, suffering from dementia, and very dependent on his son for care.  The court found the timing of the switch also supported a verdict for the plaintiff, since the changes to these accounts occurred immediately after the son was named Power of Attorney.  The judgment against the son was affirmed.

The Massachusetts estate litigation attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan can assist you with your estate-related needs.  Our attorneys will work diligently to provide you with all of the necessary documents for the successful execution of your estate.  For a free, confidential consultation, call our office today at 508-822-6600.

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